A dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, once said in a speech: “there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and everybody else.”
Like so much of what Ed says and quotes, it is clever – and it is also deep. He simultaneously mocks and validates the human tendency to create and buy into dualisms.
As I sit down to write this Menorah column, I am mindful of one of the most significant splits in Jewish philosophy. There are two kinds of Jews: those who believe the generations are getting progressively weaker and sloppier, as we move away from Sinai, and those who believe that the generations are becoming progressively more enlightened, as we approach the time of the Messiah.
I find myself in both camps. Maybe you do, too.
Recently, a great light of our generation, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, died at the age of 89. Although he treated me like a friend and an equal, I realized that I was not – and never would be – his equal. He had training, knowledge, and spiritual understanding that I will not be able to attain - not even if I am blessed with full faculties through age 89. Although he mentored and “raised up” hundreds of students, many secrets died with him. There is Kabbalah that he was not able to pass on, because his students and colleagues were simply not ready to receive it.
I remember another great mentor of mine, Dr. Elieser Slomovic, an extraordinary Talmudist who also was a highly respected authority on the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Codes, and Responsa Literature. He spoke seven languages, published widely, and knew great swaths of holy texts by heart, including, of course, the entire Bible and most of the Talmud. A survivor of the Holocaust, he grew up with Elie Wiesel and another world-class Talmudist of our time, David Halivni, in the town of Sighet. (I have a theory that there was something exceptional in the water there.)
Most of Elieser’s students, myself included, knew an embarrassingly tiny fraction of what he knew. One day, I was assisting him with some research when an undergraduate student stopped by his office to ask a question that betrayed abject ignorance of the Chumash (first five books of the Bible). Elieser answered politely and encouragingly. When the student left, Elieser turned to me and said wistfully, “Back home in Sighet, even the ignoramuses knew Chumash with Rashi.”
When I consider my teachers – Elieser, Zalman, my father, and many others – I have to side with the opinion that our society is deteriorating. We suffer from dirdurei dorot – the decline of the generations.
But then, I consider my students. I take account of the Hebrew School classes I teach. I recall the b’nai mitzvah I have coached and trained. I look back at the converts and the rabbis I have helped to educate. I witness my own children. I see the already-impressive achievements and the vast potential of younger people. They have shed some of the prejudices of older folks, and they have new technologies and fresh ideas to work with. I remember so many times when students’ perspectives informed my own. I have realized and witnessed in my own life the truth of the Talmudic observation: “I have learned much wisdom from my teachers, more from my colleagues and the most from my students” (Ta'anit 7a).
From this point of view, I have to side with the opinion that the generations are progressing.
So… which is it? Are we falling or rising? Worse or better? It’s not necessarily either/or. In general, the Jewish tradition prefers the tension of paradox to the relief of a neat, and often glib, resolution. There are two kinds of people: those who say there is only one right answer, and everybody else.
As we approach High Holidays, it is good to hold both a jaundiced and a rosy picture in mind. From one perspective, we are in a downward spiral. Consider climate change. Political strife and oppression. Terrorism. The divide between rich and poor. Relative ignorance and indifference about Jewish spirituality, compared to prior generations. And from a personal point of view, at least some of our bad habits are becoming more entrenched. Though we may be improving in some areas, there are plenty of ways that we are just marking time or getting worse.
Yet, with the accumulation of High Holiday seasons, we have at least had our denial pierced. We review both societal and personal flaws from year to year. And some problems or habits that we prayed about in past years have indeed been conquered. Mazal tov! Others are in progress. One of my favorite teachings about the High Holidays is a quip by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, who said, “I aspire from year to year to have a better class of sin.” That is a very proper aspiration. If our sins are more refined this year than last year, that means we are improving.
Sometimes, we become motivated by finally getting “fed up” with ourselves, seeing our deficits. Sometimes, that de-motivates us. Sometimes, we become inspired by taking account of the progress we have made. Sometimes, all that does is make us lazy.
This year, as High Holidays approach, I want to focus less on me and my metrics, and more on my teachers and students. The generations before us were not perfect, but they set examples and standards that can guide us. And the younger generations can likewise inspire us with their energy and creativity.
You see, there are two kinds of people…those who look beyond themselves, and everybody else.