Is the World Moving Forward or is it in Decline?

  • Rav Chaim Navon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Chaim Navon


The midrash on Parashat Chayyei Sara, cited by Rashi, contains one of the sharpest expressions of the idea that over the course of the generations, man has declined:

Rabbi Acha said: The ordinary conversation of the patriach's servants is more pleasing than even the Torah of their children. For the chapter of Eliezer, two or three pages [long], is stated and repeated, whereas [the laws of] creeping creatures are a fundamental aspect of the Torah, and [we] only [know] that its blood imparts ritual impurity like its flesh from a superfluity in Scripture. (Bereishit Rabba 60,8)

The starting point of this midrash is the astonishing fact that Eliezer's narration of his story to Rivka's family is related in full, despite the fact that the events that he describes had already been spelled out in detail. According to the plain sense of the text, other explanations of this repetition may be suggested. Nechama Leibowitz has taught us to pay attention to the differences between Eliezer's account and the original events, and to learn important lessons from the various discrepancies. Nevertheless, the words of Chazal may be understood even on the level of the plain sense of the text: the lessons that may be derived from the talk of the servants of the patriarchs are more important than the Torah of their children.

There are many other sources in which Chazal relate to the issue of the decline of the generations:

Rabbi Zera said in the name of Rabba bar Zimuna: If the earlier [scholars] were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier [scholars] were sons of men, we are like asses, and not [even] like asses of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa and Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya'ir, but like other asses. (Shabbat 112b)

Rabbi Yochanan said: The hearts of the earlier Sages were as broad as the entranceway to the porch of the Temple and those of the later Sages were as broad as the entranceway to the Sanctuary, but our hearts are as narrow as the eye of a very fine sewing-needle. (Eruvin 53a)

Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, author of the Tzelach, based certain halakhic decisions on these considerations. As is well known, at a certain point an acute problem arose: the authorities began to notice that calculations made according to talmudic measurements of length come out much greater – actually, twice as big – than calculations based on measurements of volume. The Tzelach suggested two solutions, and decided between them:

… And you must conclude that something has changed in our time: either the thumbs have increased in size, so that they are larger than the thumbs in the days of the Tannaim, or eggs have diminished in size, so that they are now smaller than what they had been in the days of the Tannaim. And it is known that the generations continually decline, and so it cannot be that our thumbs are larger than the thumbs in the days of the talmudic Sages. You must therefore conclude that the eggs of our day have diminished in size. (Tzelach, Pesachim 116b)

Rabbi Landau made use of the argument that "the generations continually decline" to reach a practical decision regarding halakhic measurements.

On the other hand, there is an important principle in Judaism that seems to contradict this idea. Let us briefly examine the following midrash:

It was taught in the school of Eliyahu: Six thousand are the years of the world: two thousand years of chaos; two thousand years of Torah, and two thousand years of the days of the Messiah. (Avoda Zara 9a)

This midrash clearly points in the direction of historical progress: from "chaos" to "Torah" to "the Messiah."[1] We are not talking merely about some haphazard midrash. The very idea of the Messiah strongly pulls us to the understanding that the generations are not retreating, but rather progressing. For surely the pinnacle and climax of human existence lies yet ahead of us! This argument, however, is not necessarily true, as has been emphasized by Prof. Gershom Sholem:

… For the future redemption will not at all follow from what preceded it in history. On the contrary, it is the absence of a transition from history to redemption that is most strongly felt in the words of the prophets and visionaries. Scripture and the apocalyptic revelations do not recognize historical progress that leads to redemption. Redemption is not the result of self-development, as the term has come to be understood according to the modern Western explanation given to it ever since the Enlightenment. For even then, in its secular form as belief in progress, the messianic idea continued to reveal ceaseless vitality. Redemption is essentially a transcendental experience that breaks into history, a breach that brings to the non-existence of history, which turns over in its ruins because it had been struck by a ray of light from some source outside of it. (Gershom Scholem, Devarim Begav, p. 164).

If so, as Sholem argues, the coming of the Messiah may be seen as a one-time event that breaks into history, unconnected to any historical development that preceded it. Clearly, however, there were schools of Jewish thought that saw in history development and progress towards the coming of the Messiah. The coming of the Messiah was not seen as a break in history, but as its climax.

This approach is particularly striking in the kabblisitic teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Ari). In the aftermath of the spread of Lurianic kabbala, history was viewed more and more as an expression of the continuous elevation of the world. Thus it was related in the name of the Ba'al Shem Tov:

Our period enjoys superiority over those that preceded it. A thousand years ago "the atmosphere was crude," the spiritual atmosphere was so hazy, to the point that philosophers held fast to the worthless opinion regarding the eternity of the world (the view of Aristotle, against which the Rambam fought). Now there has been a change for the better, the atmosphere has become pure, and no thinker errs to think that the world is eternal, and that it was not created. (Ba'al Shem Tov, cited in A. Marcus, Ha-Chassidut, pp. 14-15)

Interestingly, the Ba'al Shem Tov connects the progress of the world with progress in science and philosophy, and their agreement with the Jewish religion. The Admor of Radzin voiced similar ideas regarding the progress and perfection of the world.[2] In our generation, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook greatly emphasized progress and evolution:

The theory of evolution, which is now conquering the world, is in greater accord with the secrets of the world of kabbala than any other philosophical theory… And when we penetrate into the innermost aspects of the foundation of evolution, we find that the divine idea is illuminated in it in absolute clarity, that an infinite in realia actualizes that which is infinite in potentia… All of existence evolves and becomes elevated, as is clearly evident in parts thereof. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh II, p. 537)

Rabbi Kook's outlook was intimately connected to his spiritual world, which was primarily inspired by the world of kabbala. The Nazir explained that the kabbalistic creed provides a sound philosophical basis for the idea of progress: The world returns to its source in a manner similar to the law of connected vessels which asserts that a liquid will rise to the level from which it had descended:

The elevation of the world is based on sublime emanation. As for the modern theory of evolution, its philosophical foundation, if not its biological foundation, is shaky. From where [the belief] in progress in an ascending line, without ups and downs, or in a circle? This is not the case with the elevation of the world based on sublime emanation, the fall of the world and its repair, which rises, like the mechanical law of connected vessels, to the same level from which it had descended, to its previous lofty position. (HaRav HaNazir, Mavo le-Orot ha-Kodesh, pp. 20-21)

The world progresses and develops, only because it originated in the celestial worlds. The development of the world is essentially a return to its source. The Nazir went as far as to argue that the recent rise in status of women and the current yearning for equality between men and women result from the world's progress.[3]


We have seen Jewish sources that speak of the decline of the later generations, and others that speak of continuous progress. How can these diverse approaches be reconciled? Is it possible to accept the idea of progress, and at the same time hold fast to the notion that the generations have declined over time? Or perhaps this is really impossible!


Judaism has proposed several possible resolutions. The most famous among them is latent in the words of Rabbi Yeshaya of Trani (the Rid), which were borrowed – it should be noted – from Christian thinkers of his day. The Rid asserts that it is in our power to disagree with the Sages of the early generations, despite the fact that when considered individually, they are wiser than us, because we are "dwarfs riding on the backs of giants" (Responsa Rid, 62). The Rid emphasizes the accumulation of knowledge. As individuals, the Rishonim were greater and wiser than the Acharonim, but knowledge accumulates. That which the Rishonim achieved through great effort is today the starting point of all discussion.

Rabbi Tzaddok develops this point along kabbalistic lines, speaking not only about the accumulation of knowledge, but also about the accumulation of holiness:

Every soul in Israel has its own special force in holiness, and as is the number of generations that have already passed, so is the number of holy forces and words of Torah that have been revealed in the world. Therefore, in each and every generation, holiness becomes ever more revealed, even though the generations are in decline, as is well known. The reason is that that which was revealed in the early generations has already been revealed, as is known by way of the parable of the dwarf sitting on top of the giant. (Rabbi Tzaddok Ha-Kohen, Tzidkat ha-Tzadik, p. 116)

Elsewhere as well, Rabbi Kook speaks about the accumulation of holiness in the people of Israel. Even though as individuals we keep diminishing in stature, the accumulated holiness continually grows.[4]


Some have argued that indeed there was a time in the past when the idea of the decline of the generations was correct. In our day, however, owing to the impending redemption, the generations are growing in stature. According to this approach, there are two focal points: past revelation and future redemption. These two points create sort of an inverted bell curve, at both ends of which there are generations of great stature. Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz writes in this vein:[5]

As for the Ibn Ezra who complained about the Kalir, the Rav said: I like to defend the Ibn Ezra… The Tannaim and the Amoraim were close in time to the destruction of the Temple, which still gave illumination, having only recently been removed. And the recent Tzaddikim in these generations are close to the light of the Messiah; there is no novelty then in their attaining the truth… But the Ibn Ezra, was far removed from the destruction [of the Temple] and also far removed from the Messiah, and, therefore, he did not attain the level of the Kalir. (Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz, Midrash Pinchas, p. 82)[6]


A third approach to resolving the contradiction distinguishes between the various realms: in some areas there has been a rise, while in others there has been a decline. This approach seems to be very reasonable, for we see that alongside the sharp drop over the last two hundred years in the percentage of the general Jewish population that has remained Torah-observant, there is a steep rise in other realms. Thus writes Rabbi Tzaddok in the name of the Admor of Peshiskha: "While the souls diminish from one generation to the next, nevertheless the point in the heart becomes more purified in each successive generation" (Rabbi Tzaddok Ha-Kohen, Peri Tzaddik, p. 217). It is unclear what he means here by "the point in the heart"; it is, however, clear that the Admor of Peshiskha sees the transition from generation to generation as a complex and two-fold process. It is also interesting to note that Rabbi Tzaddok's point of departure – as we mentioned earlier – is the issue of redemption: If the generations are constantly diminishing in stature, how can we be getting closer to the redemption?


Let us for a moment abandon our theoretical models, and try to take a fresh look at the world. How do things appear to us? Is the world moving forward or is it in decline?

The prevalent perception of the modern world has been one of progress and development. This perception was based primarily on a single fact: the tremendous technological advances that nobody can deny. The idea of progress accorded well with the image of the world maintained by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. It was primarily the philosopher Georg Hegel who provided the idea of progress with philosophical backing. Hegel saw in the history of the world the development of the world-spirit, which finds expression in all realms of life. Regarding the discussion at hand, Hegel was convinced that the world was headed in one direction: progress. There are those who argue that Rabbi Kook was influenced by Hegel himself, or at least by the spirit of that period.[7]

In the twentieth century, however, following Auschwitz and Hiroshima, doubts began to surface regarding the idea of progress. Is mankind really moving forward? These were the first seeds of what would later be called "post-modernism." The scholar and philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, wrote that the brutal leaders of the past century – Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler – returned the world to barbarism; according to the nineteenth century's theories of progress, this would have been impossible.[8]

In this context, Professor Yeshaya Leibowitz wrote the following piercing words:

Mankind – and certainly that sector of mankind to which we now belong and have always belonged, i.e., the western world – has already for several generations been undergoing a process of barbarization. It is very important to raise this to our awareness, for there are those among us - naive and those who pretend to be naive, fools and those who make fools of themselves - who continue to speak of the darkness of the Middle Ages as opposed to the enlightened and cultured world of ours. There are even those who build social-political programs upon this notion. It should therefore be remembered that both the first and the second World Wars took place in the twentieth century, and not in the Middle Ages. Nothing ever happened in the Middle Ages that even comes close to these horrific events…

Today the slaughter of tens of thousands of people in a single day or over a couple of days is one of those events that we have already gotten used to reading about on page three of the morning newspaper, in reports from the four corners of the world…

As an example of the change that has taken place in the psychological background of the social reality, let us mention an event that occurred three generations ago, one that at the time shocked not only the entire Jewish world, but also a large portion of the non-Jewish world – the Kishinev pogrom. It was about this pogrom that Bialik wrote his Ir ha-Harega, and it was this pogrom which served as the impetus for the second Aliya, among other strong reactions. Now, in Kishinev 41 Jews were killed and several tens of Jewish houses and stores were looted. This was the reality less than a hundred years ago. In the last seventy or eighty years, human society has undergone a process of barbarization, and human life no longer has any value. (Yeshaya Leibowitz, Emuna, Historiya, va-Arakhim, pp. 171-172)

Someone who was neither a philosopher nor a historian voiced an interesting position on this issue. When the "who is a Jew" question first arose in Israel at the end of the 1950's, David Ben Gurion initiated a typically grandiose project: he sent letters to fifty "Jewish sages," asking them to present their positions on the matter. The responses to Ben Gurion's question were published only a few years ago (A. Ben Rafael, Zehuyot Yehudiyot, Sde Boker, 5761).

One of the Israeli respondents, a medical doctor, Dr. Yosef Schechter, received by mistake the letter that had been sent to the philosopher, Dr. Yosef Schechter. He expressed his surprise at the Prime Minister's query, in as much as his field of expertise was very far from questions of this sort. Nevertheless, he did not refrain from offering his opinion. Truth be told, Dr. Schechter put forward one of the wisest arguments against deviating from the halakhic track; his argument touches upon the question that has been the subject of our discussion:

The argument that the position of the ancient authorities no longer fits the spirit of our time will undoubtedly be voiced. There is no need for deep analysis to convince ourselves that our time is one of the darkest, and almost certainly the darkest in history – a period whose crimes have brought mankind to the verge of destruction, similar to the generation of the flood and the people of Sodom. Can anybody seriously argue that we should bring the law of Moshe, which bears the seal of God, into harmony with the spirit of our time? (Y. Schechter, in: Zeihuyot Yehudiyot, p. 296)

In summary, the issue is not unequivocal. There are realms of life which demonstrate progress and advance, but there are others which show decline or no movement at all. There is no need to assume that mankind is moving altogether in one direction or the other; we must therefore be careful in our formulation of the question. It is very reasonable to say that the world is not moving in any one, unequivocal direction.


[1] The Chazon Ish understood, however, that we are dealing here with a retreat of sorts. He argues that even if medical advances render certain defects that had once been considered fatal as no longer life-threatening, the Halakha does not change, for it was established according to the reality of the "two thousand years of Torah" (Chazon Ish, Yore De'a, Hilkhot Terefot 5, 3)

[2] The Admor of Radzin, Sod Yesharim, Pesach, p. 121.

[3] Cited by D. Schwartz, Ha-Tziyonut ha-Datit bein Higayon li-Meshichiyut, pp. 323, 324.

[4] Iggerot ha-Ra'aya, I, p. 369. Compare with Orot ha-Kodesh, III, pp. 217-219.

[5] Rabbi Pinchas, however, emphasizes the period of the Temple, and not necessarily that of the revelation at Sinai, as the focus of holiness in the past.

[6] Cited by S. Sperber, Hemshekh ha-Dorot, in Ha-Ra'aya, pp. 45-46.

[7] See the Nazir's description of the spirit of the modern period in his introduction to Orot ha-Kodesh, p. 31.

[8] See Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History, pp. 30-31.

(Translated by David Strauss)