Friday, August 31, 2007

Yeridat Hadorot

Others may praise ancient times, I am glad that I was born in these
-Ovid
Do not say 'Why were the old times better than these?' for you did not ask this out of wisdom.
-Ecclesiastes
....the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone/ all centuries but this and all countries but his own...
-Gilbert and Sullivan (I've Got a Little List)


This discussion happened ages and ages ago, in blogging terms, but I didn't bother posting my opinion, largely because of the above sentiment. But then I decided that it's better to have a poor post than no post at all. Although I'm starting to doubt that.

It is neither useful nor intellectually sound to wander around moaning about how lovely things used to be. First of all, you weren't there, so how would you know and second of all, well, suppose they were, what does that have to do with anything that we can do anything about? (I do not think that the belief in yeridat hadorot has absolutely anything to do with the legal principle of certain precedents being binding, which is the only nafka mina that I've heard anyone come up with.)

That said, I do have a sort of nostalgic longing of days of auld lang syne. Sure, they lived to be forty and had most of their children die before turning ten. Sure, they beat their wives and owned slaves. Sure, their food was bland, moldy, and scarce and their lives were uncomfortable and precarious. But the characters that you read about in Tanach and the Talmud and old history books do have one thing on us: they were so much realer.

When they were evil, they were no milk and water villains, watered down and diluted by troubled childhoods and post-modern relativism. When they believed, they did so without constant self-awareness, self-doubt, meta-questioning, and philosophical indeterminacy. When they acted, they really actually did so, without second-guessing or whining. They hadn't invented angst.

I'm not saying they were better. Quite often- and quite possibly as a whole- they were worse. But they were moreso. And in an age when you can't stop analyzing your own feelings long enough to have them and you can't identify your own opinions without pondering on the fundamental multiplicity of truth and you can't go ten feet without bumping into existential questions on the nature of life, death, being, and pain, it's hard not to be a little nostalgic for a premodern age.

If, of course, that's anything like the way and not simply an effect of the style of history, the sparsity of sources, the motives of the narrator and so forth.

See? We can't even nostalge without analyzing how valid that it is.

13 comments:

Halfnutcase said...

:-)

Larry Lennhoff said...

See? We can't even nostalge without analyzing how valid that it is.

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

I wrote on yeridat hadorot myself - I'd be interested in what you think.

Yosef said...

Bravo!

Of course, it's not clear that these historical figures didn't have the meta-questions that we do and the accompanying intellectual angst; rather, the records we have do not mention them, which does not preclude their existence.

Tobie said...

I have to agree with Yosef man; what about the great early kings? between Shaul, dovid, and Slomo,you don't think there was enough angst for the hole darn Bible? I kinda do.

e-kvetcher said...

"they were so much realer."

They say when you move to a new country the native tongue is the first thing to go :)

In general I agree with the sentiment. I think most of it had to do with the rather self-assured outlook on life that the premoderns possessed - they were pretty sure they knew how the world worked, real emuna pshuta so to speak. So no angst in the modern sense of the word.

However, I think by Roman time and certainly after, you have quite a bit of angst, though probably not so much in the Jewish literature...

Tobie said...

First of all, Tobie above is Miri, accidentally logged in to my screenname. And to her I say- Kohelet may be the first inklings of angst, but it's a) really all there is out there- I mean, David, awful life, tons of sadness- no angst. Shaul- depression, psychosis, sure, but no angst. And b) even Kohelet lacks that self-centered self-awareness that angst has- it's more just garden variety ennui than hard-core angst.

Yosef- you're absolutely right- I think I mentioned as much- I have no idea what they were really like and what is simply the bias of the sources, but I feel as though some of the lack of meta and angst is probably genuine simply because they hadn't invented a lot of the philosophy that gives us both.

Larry- I will check it out and comment there.

E-kvetcher- First of all, :p
Secondly, you may be right about Roman times (I have a big book of Roman literature which I mostly bought to look cool on my shelf but someday I may read and have actual opinions on the subject), but I still feel as though angst builds up over the centuries. The angst of people just discovering angst does not seem quite comparable to the angst of people being angsty about angst being around forever and meta about all the metaness that everyone before them has meta-ed. If that made any sense at all.

Tobie said...

Larry- actually, I decided to post here instead, since it always feels awkward to post on a long dead discussion.

I personally oppose the link between the hashkafic link of the yeridat hadorot and the legal one of not being able to challenge unequivocal rulings of previous eras. (To whatever extent that is true- R' Moshe Feinstein tended to posken straight from the gemara, and there is actually machloket among the Rash and Ritva, I believe about whether they as rishonim had to accept geonim, which would probably apply to rishonim/achronim as well).

I think that the legal principle holds true even if you consider yourself as intelligent and perhaps as well-informed as, say, the writers of the Talmud. The fact is, there's just so much out there that you can't keep reinventing the wheel. At some point in Jewish history, the nation as a whole decided that it would consider the gemara as the authoratitive interpretation of the Bible. How right they were all of the time, I don't know. But a system needs to be based on some agreed legal bases and the Bible is just a little too obscure to work as a basis for later legal reasoning. I mean, if you had to go back to pesukim every time you wanted to discuss a halacha? Craziness.

In my Legal Theory class, they described the idea of binding precedent as a struggle between stability and adaptability of the legal system. I think that the same is true here and the fact that we grab giant eras and establish them as binding is no more based on an idea of moral/intellectual superiority than the fact that lower courts must follow the Supreme Court necessarily supposes that they are better people. It's just a good way to run a system.

The moral superiority stuff of Yeridat Hadorot seems to serve no such legal function, except it's often used to justify the above to people who don't like precedent to be binding just stam. And often it's used just to keep people humble- "you think you're good? YOU THINK YOU'RE GOOD? You should just think about how good previous people were, huh?" and keep them in line and not saying snide things about the past.

Nemo said...

"an effect of the style of history, the sparsity of sources, the motives of the narrator and so forth."

I'm leaning more towards this.

Miri said...

I still think Kohelet fits. Angst is all about people coming to terms with their own finiteness in the face of oblivion. If that's not kohelet, I don't know what is.

(sorry about the non-logging-outness ;))

Halfnutcase said...

Tobie, the maharal said that it is preferable to rule based on the talmud and sin (err), rather than g-d forbid one should rely on the codes.

The maharsha said that one who rules from the shulchan aruch is classed as a scholar "who destroys the world".

the bais yosef himself said that the shulchan aruch was intended only for the the ignorant and the beggining student while someone with any accuity at all to his scholarship should go back to the gemorah (and rule).

and basicaly everyone from that era said things like that. From what I've learned this whole relying on the shulchan aruch is actualy a surprisingly modern thing (as in at most the last 100 or so years, although some have said that it was because most of those who came out of the shoah were basicaly ignorant (with obvious exceptions).

e-kvetcher said...

Like I said, I think I mostly agree with you. In my opinion, the angst did not increase gradually as time went on, but really spiked up post-Enlightenment crescendoing in the 20th century with WWI, Stalin, WWII, and Cold War.

Tobie said...

Miri- I think that the difference between Kohelet and modern angst- although Kohelet is plenty angsty- is that Kohelet lacks the navel gazing in which modern angst- as so much of modernity- delights. At least he wasn't angsty about being angsty.

e-kvetcher said...

I think Kohelet is the opposite of angst - angst implies being troubled and emotionally conflicted. Kohelet is almost Zen like in his calm...