Midgets on the Shoulders of Giants

Someone recently (when I first wrote an earlier version of this post, Feb 2007) asked me about nisqatnu hadoros, the decline over time from one generation to the next. How is this possible, given that we now have universal education, and the masses know more Torah than any other generation in millennia?

Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident.
Pigmies placed on the shoulders of giants see more than the giants themselves.

– Didacus Stella in Lucan 10, tom. ii. (39-65 CE)

So, sometime around the end of the Second Beis haMiqdash period is the earliest documentation of the idea that people of later generations, even if not as great as those of earlier generations, could still get further — because we start with their accomplishments.

This metaphor first enters Jewish Thought with the Tosafos Rid, Rav Yishaya di-Trani (1180-1250). His student, the Shibolei haLeqet, is clear that the Tosafos Rid was using “an aphorism that he heard from the non Jewish scholars. … [W]e are dwarves riding on the neck of giants because we see their wisdom and delve deeper, and we learn from their wisdom to discover everything that we say. Not because we are greater than they were.” Quoted from translation by R’ David Sedley in his blog (see there for a discussion focusing on this particular expression). R’ Sedley identifies the “non Jewish scholars” as Bernard of Chartres, quoted by John of Salisbury.

Meanwhile, the idea, if not the metaphor, has a long standing amongst Chazal well before the Tosafos Rid. The most similar is probably:

Rabbi Zeira said that Rava bar Zimuna said: If the earlier [Sages] were the sons of angels, then we are mortals; but if the earlier ones were mortals, then we are donkeys – and not the donkeys of Rav Chanina Ben Dosa and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair but like the other donkeys.

- Shabbos 112b

The term I rendered “mortals” is “benei temusa — sons of death”. There is a version which has “benei adam — children of man”, i.e. people. But I think this variant is more telling.

The reference to Rav Chanina ben Dosa’s donkey is explained in the gemara. Thieves stole the donkey and gave it untithed grain to eat. The donkey refused to eat. Eventually, the thieves realized that the donkey was useless to them; if they kept it, it would starve to death. So they released it, and the donkey returned home. Rabbi Pinechas ben Yair sold his donkey to non-Jews, but the donkey somehow knew when it was Shabbos, and refused to work.

We have three levels:

1- Angels, which are purely spiritual. They embody Hashem’s Will, and therefore do not change.

2- People, who are body and soul. Particularly if we are actually being called “mortals”, ones who are destined to separate soul from body.

3- Donkeys. The word is “chamor“, which we noted in the past is standard midrashic idiom for symbolizing man’s physical nature, due to the word’s similarity to “chomer“, substance. Thus our heroes come riding donkeys — in full control of their bodily desires and urges, and channeling them constructively.

A second metaphoric use of “chamor” is that person with knowledge is often compared to a donkey carrying a burden. For example, in how our sages (as quoted by Rashi, Bereishis 49:14) explain Yaaqov comparing Yissachar to a donkey in his blessing, that Yissachar was a tribe that was noted for its Torah knowledge.

A donkey would not be the animal chosen to represent ignorance. There is also no basis that I know of for saying that angels are more informed than people.

Within the class of donkeys, this gemara defines two sets:

  1. the special donkeys of the two tannaim, and
  2. regular donkeys.

Donkeys can’t think as humans do. When they act, they are responding to stimuli, acting as per habit, rote.

Notice, though, what we skip a level. Either we are like mortals to our predecessors’ angels, or we are like regular donkeys to their humanity. It is never suggested that we are like the special donkeys.

I think this is what this gemara is saying. If we view the earlier generations as angels in their perfection, then we must view ourselves as mortals — beings in a process to reach for that perfection, as an unattainable goal to strive for. If we view them as beings-in-process, then we should realize that they act as their souls dictate, and our actions are the rote of donkeys. And it’s not even like we have the best possible habits! If we were speaking of R’ Chanina ben Dosa’s or R’ Pinchas ben Yair’s donkeys, then at least we could invoke “mitokh shelo lishmah ba lishmah — from acting without the proper intent, one is brought to proper intent.” The process could begin with even donkey-like action and that bring us to our spiritual selves, but only if it were instinctively, habitually, following proper action.

So as I see it, the message of this gemara is that either we see how our perfection falls short of theirs (angels vs. mortals) or of how our pursuit of perfection falls short of theirs (mortals vs. regular donkeys). Again, the message appears to be about a decline in commitment, rather than knowledge.

This same question of how we differ from earlier generations was asked in a second gemara. What I want to focus on is exactly in which way we are lesser than those who came before, and how does that not interfere with our utilizing what they left us. I believe my take on R’ Zeira’s words are more explicitly made by here by Abayei:

R. Papa said to [his teacher] Abayei: What is the difference between those earlier [than us], for whom miracles were common, and us, for whom miracles are not common? If it is because of tenuyei

I want to break off here for a second. Tenuyei is from tani, to repeat, the root means “two”. It is also the root for masnisin, Mishna. Clearly the word means information memorized and repeated, the chain of masorah, in distinction to ideas that are derived or reasoned from those facts we inherited.

…in the years of R. Yehuda, all of tenuyei was in Neziqin, and we are masnisin…

which either means “learn mishnayos” or “repeat what we learned”. The difference wasn’t all that significant in those days. Mishnayos existed as an easily memorizable form for halakhah.

…6 orders. And when R. Yehuda delineates in [tractate] Uqtzin, [the case of] “A woman who dries vegetables in a pot”, or, some say [the case of] “Olives that were dried cut off”, [his students] Rav and Shmuel’s entire existances [were tied up in the resolution] of this issue. Yet we are masnisin Uqtzin in 13 schools [of thought, with 13 different explanations - Rashi]….
[Abayei] said to him: The are mosir nefesh [commit their souls] to sanctify The Name, we are not mosir nefesh to sanctify The Name.

- Brachos 20a

The gemara very clearly states that it is possible for one generation to know more than an earlier one. Abayei’s conclusion is that the lessening of the generations is in mersiras nefesh – commitment, not in knowledge.

Here’s R JB Soloveitchik’s way of describing the decline, as written in Pinchas Peli’s notes of his pre-Rosh haShanah lectures (“Soloveitchik On Repentance”, pp 88-89):

Allow me, please, to make a “private confession” concerning a matter that has caused me such loss of sleep. I am not so very old, yet I remember a time when ninety percent of world Jewry were observant and the secularists were a small minority at the fringes of the camp. I still remember – it was not so long ago – when Jews were still close to G-d and lived in an atmosphere perverted with holiness. But, today, what do we see? The profane and the secular are in control wherever we turn.

Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews one can no longer talk of the “sanctity of the Sabbath day.” True, there are Jews in America who observe the Sabbath. The label “Sabbath observer” has come to be used as a title of honor in our circles, just like “Harav HaGaon” – neither really indicates anything and both testify to the lowly state of our generation. But it is not for the Sabbath that my heart aches, it is for the “eve of the Sabbath.” There are Sabbath-observing Jews in America, but there are not “eve-of-the-Sabbath” Jews who go out to greet the Sabbath with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet and/or with their mouths – but there are few, indeed, who truly know the meaning of service of the heart! What is the percentage of religious Jews today in contrast to the ninety percent only two generations ago? It seems to me that religious Jewry survives today solely by force of the Name of G-d who is there after man sins.

Otherwise we should have utterly despaired and given in to the feeling, with which I am often overcome as I lie awake at night, that we are building castles of sand, and any moment a wave will come and wipe out everything. But G-d who is there after man sins does not allow us to despair. He whispers in our ears the “Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains” – one must do much climbing and work hard, grasp every hand-hold and out-cropping, slide backward and try again to climb the mountain so as to be able to reach Jerusalem. “Who shall climb the mountain unto the Lord?” I do not believe that it is easy to return and repent. The path of repentance, for the individual, as well as the community, is arduous and many boulders are strewn about which can be overcome only with supreme effort. The road is long and tortuous until one arrives at the stage of: “Be cleansed before the Lord,” the cleansing of the Name of G-d who is there before man sins.

Now that we have universal education, we know more more. We are “higher”. However, in terms of religious passion we are “pand add far less to the total height. It is this poverty that is seen as now reaching crisis levels.

I like the metaphor of the rules of grammar that Moshe Koppel uses in his seifer “Metahalakha”. A native speaker of a language may not know its rules, whereas an immigrant who went to enough ulpan or ESL classes would know how to conjugate past pluperfect irregular verbs. The native speaker, though, knows what “sounds right”. And thus, with his less knowledge, is capable of knowing acceptable poetic license to make his point more elloquently and poignantly. The immigrant will make precisely grammatically correct sentences. If he learns two grammarians opinions, and he is sufficiently scared of sounding like an idiot, he will often choose a sentence that conforms to both interpretations. The immigrant, because he lacks that feel for the subject, will play safe.

If this was all there was to it.

One of the basic differences between Orthodox and Conservative thought is the mutability of decisions made by earlier generations. Orthodoxy breaks history down into eras: tana’im, amora’im, rishonim and achronim (roughly: mishnaic, talmudic, medieval, and late authorities). A rabbi of a later era may not or would not dispute one of an earlier era without having another earlier Rabbi in support. The dictum used to support this system is that no court can overrule another court unless it is greater in chokhmah (to be translated later) and in number. Since we can get arbitrarily large courts today, we seem to assume that later generations have less chokhmah than earlier ones.

Chokhmah, therefore, is some mental process, but if we want our quote from the gemara to stand, it is not required for masnisin. So chokhmah doesn’t refer to collecting information.

There is a famous quote, from Mes. Tamid: “Who is a chokham? One who sees what will be born.” Chokhmah here is a mental skill. But are we saying it is a necesary skill to be able to trace cause to effects (think before you do?); or even, chokhmah is acquired by studying causes to get effects. This seemingly straightforward quote didn’t help as much as I’d guess it would.

What is chokhmah? Well, I went to my copy of the Tanya, the book describing a Judaism based on Chokhmah Bina vaDa’asChabad. I figured that R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi must define his terms somewhere. Sure enough, this is what I found in Chapter 3. (Disclaimer: I am not a student of Chabad, my knowledge is very superficial. This is just a quote from an authorized translation by R. Nissan Mindel (1962).)

The intellect of the rational soul, which is the faculty which conceives of any thing, is given the appellation of chokhmahkoach mah – the “potentiality” of “what is”. When one brings forth this power from the potential to the actual, that is when [a person] cogitates with his intellect in order to understand a thing truly and profoundly as it evolves from the concept which he has conceived in his intellect, this is called binah.

Chokhmah, then, is the ability to conceive, to imagine, to create new information, which is then developed by binah. Neither refer to just warehousing information spoon-fed by the outside world — the ability most related to the masnisin of M. Brachos. Chokhmah would be the ability to perform thought-experiments. This helps understand our quote from Tamid. A chokham is the one who is ABLE to envision consequences before acting.

(But what about the oft-quoted mishnah of Ben Zoma (Avos 4:1) “Who is a chokham? One who learns from all men…”? I don’t see how this works with the either gemara that we quoted, or the Tanya’s definition. I considered the same three alternatives as I did for the mishnah in Tamid: 1- A chokham is one who is able to learn from any person. This seems to be a statement about middos (personality traits) not intellect. 2- A chokham would know that you ought to learn from anyone. This could be, but so would a navon (one blessed with binah, deductive abilities). 3- Chokhmah is acquired by learning from any person. This is, again, about masnisin — remembering and being able to repeat what you learned.

(Perhaps, and I admit this is a lame reply, chokham is used in Avos in a broad non-technical sense. A chokham could be one who has chokhmah, or one who has any intellectual prowess.)

We can tie these two types of generational descent together by positing a single cause. Clearly, for mesiras nefesh — committing oneself to G-d, one requires Yir’as Hashem — awe of G-d. Similarly, we say upon waking up every morning: reishis chokhmah yir’as Hashem — the beginning or source of Chokhmah is awe of G-d.

It seems to me from these two phenomena that it is yir’as Shamayim that is the primary trait that is diminishing through the years. The gemara in Brachos about mesiras nefesh, and the increasing crystallization of halachic decision are the outward manifestations.

Yir’as Shamayim, an awareness of the magnitude and import of the One in Heaven and our relationship to Him is the essence of the Sinai experience. Someone who can feel it and live by it is truly a “native speaker” of halakhah. We who do not spend erev Shabbos in anticipation of Shabbos must rely on strict adherence to formalized rules.

And your thoughts...?