5754 - #19
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, Jewish Women in Time and Torah introduces a distinction in regard to Torah concepts and ethics between those which are Torah-tolerated and those which are Torah-taught. Rabbi Berkovits sees history as progressive, that through history the Jewish people have improved their standards of ethical behaviour. When the Torah was given on Har Sinai, Hashem allowed certain behaviour, albeit with a difference, although this could not be perceived to be ultimately the correct behaviour; thus the term Torah-tolerated. As time passed and we were affected by Torah and learned from its overall lessons, we were to move beyond these values to higher ones; those which were Torah-taught. Rabbi Berkovits refers to slavery as an example. The Torah tolerates slavery although, right from the beginning, it legislated many laws to protect the slave. At Har Sinai, these were the standards that could be set - tolerated but not the ideal. Over the centuries, after being affected by Torah, we were to learn the higher value to abolish slavery in totum.
Rabbi Berkovits finds strong support for his contention in the words of Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:32, who applies these general concepts to the Torah laws of sacrifices. Note should be taken, though, of the powerful attack on this approach, at least as it applies to sacrifices, by Ramban, Vayikra 1:9. There are, though, many sources that do seem to support an outlook of progression over time. T.B. Chullin 6b,7a states that there are always issues of Torah law to be newly decided by one generation for "our ancestors left us a place to distinguish ourselves". We have also the famous maxim developed in the Middle Ages, that "we are dwarfs that stand on the shoulders of giants" who, thereby, can see farther than the giant - a reference to progression. See, regarding this maxim, Shnayer Z. Laiman, "From the Pages of Tradition: Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants", TRADITION 27:3. There are also numerous inferances in the commentators that the development of, at least some, Rabbinic law, mitzvot d'rabbanan, reflects a progression of the corpus of Torah. There are, however, others that see the development of, again at least some, mitzvot d'rabbanan as an indication of the lower status of the latter generations who need these safeguards. See, in regard to this debate, Mishna Avot 1:1 with commentators thereon, specifically, for example, Rabbeinu Yonah and Maharal, Derech Chaim. See also T.B. Yevamot 21a. Bottom line, though, a view of history as progressive is well-defended within the sources. It is supported by the very concept of Torah as the gift from G-d that educates and brings one closer to shlaimut and devaikut. See also Rambam, Letter to Ovadiah the Ger.
The problem with this view of progression, however, is a weighty one. A cardinal belief of Judaism is that the previous generations were greater than us. "If the earlier ones were like sons of angels, we are like sons of men; and if the earlier ones were like sons of men, we are like donkeys (T.B. Shabbat 112b)." How is progression possible when regression in the status of the generations is the norm?
The maxim of "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants" was developed as a response to this dilemma. The previous generations were greater and, thereby, could accomplish more. We, though, now move on from their point of accomplishment, unable to achieve what they did but empirically to go farther because we build from where they left off. In a world of science and knowledge, we can fully understand this approach. Perhaps there is no one today who could equal the genius of Einstein but scientists know more than he did precisely because they built upon his theories. In the world of Torah thought, the same argument would hold true. Many perceive Torah as a body of material passed down from one generation to the next with slippage of this information as the generations become weaker. This view is inherently incorrect for Torah thought is limitless and its scientists, the talmedei chachamim, are constantly expanding its frontiers. As Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:101 states, Heaven forbid, that a limit and a boundary has been placed on Torah thought; Torah's greatness continues to grow - through chiddush, building on the works of the giants of the past.
The problem, though, is that our attitude to previous generations lies not only in the realm of thought and knowledge but in tziddkut, righteousness. We not only believe those generations to be greater than us in mental ability but in their levels of holiness. See Maharal, Derech Chaim, Avot 1:1 cited above. If this is so, then how can we argue that in the realm of ethics and religious concepts there was development? If in the generations of the prophets slavery was allowed and we now consider our repugnance to slavery to be an ethical progression, how can we look back on these generations, as we should, with the perception that they were greater tzaddikim then us?
One approach in answering this dilemma may lie in distinguishing between the great ones of each generation - where there is regression - and the general populace - where there is progression. There would seem to be some support for such an approach in the language of Rambam. Another approach may lie in recognizing the connection between thought, ethical perceptions and development. Righteousness may not be a function of being but rather becoming and this process is an outgrowth of thought. It is the movement towards the understanding of the problems of slavery, which we take for granted, that marked the greatness, in tziddkut, of the previous generations. Such an approach can only work if the actions, at least, met some minimum ethical standard. The term Torah-tolerated, thereby, takes on new meaning. The Torah immediately applied a minimum level of acceptable ethical behaviour upon which we could develop. The Torah-taught level is an manifestation of growth. Tzaddik is a term that marks not only behaviour but advancement and a full understanding of Torah ethics must involve a perception of both levels and the path between them.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
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