Rabbi Harry Maryles posted on Friday, January 12, 2007 a bold and intriguing essay entitled Shmuel and Yiftach. The comments following his essay either missed the point or didn’t do justice to the intent and thought of this gutsy essay. I don’t agree with Rabbi Maryles’ secondary claim that the holocaust in this matter was the main factor resulting in the different caliber of gedolim. However, his primary thesis statement that there is a distinct difference in quality between gedolim prior to the holocaust and those after the holocaust, reminded me of an essay written by none other than Asher Ginzberg better known as Ahad Ha’am in 1894 entitled Imitation and Assimilation. While this essay was written in connection with Baron Hirsch’s project to establish a Jewish national center in Argentina, it bears relevance to Rabbi Maryles’ primary thesis position. Ahad Ha’am maintained that the main contributing factor to a decreased caliber of intellectual and spiritual Jewish leadership was an inevitable evolutionary process induced by our own national psyche.
Ahad Ha’am believes that contemporary generations build by imitating earlier generations. Specifically there is a tendency to imitate the visionaries – the shakers and movers. As this occurs in progressive generations there is a point where society becomes super-saturated. That is to say that progress is limited and while the leaders aspire to perfection it cannot be achieved. At a certain point in the development of ideas there comes this realization.
Until that point of self realization one generation builds on another all the while striving for perfection. At a critical moment the process of building on from one generation to another begins to taper off. The process of imitating the past, ironically takes on greater relevance. They are imitating their ancestors whom they cannot best, and so these ancestors become their obsession. According to Ahad Ha’am this process produces a by-product which he calls self effacement. Without the self effacement the process of imitation of the ancestors cannot be self sustained.
Ahad Ha’m bases this analysis on the Gemara T.B. Shabbat 112b: Rava Bar Zima said “Im Rishonim b’nei malachim anu b’nei anashim. V’im rishonim b’nei anashim – anu k’chamorim” if our ancestors (rishonim) were the son of angels we are the children of men, and if the rishonim were the children of men – we are like donkeys. However, he takes it one step further and says that once we arrive at our saturation point the quality of the imitation deteriorates. Because of the self effacement we no longer can focus on the significant issues and become distracted with the inconsequential. “That self effacement which is the result of reverent awe, no longer finds a suitable object in the present, which is living entirely on the past; and so the impulse to imitation of the living by the living is now given by competition…..”
Borrowing from Ahad Ha’am it would seem as though one could apply some of his reasoning to the conundrum which Rabbi Maryles poses. It would appear that the classification of the periods between Rishonim and Acharonim is arbitrary. It is basically the dividing point of before and after the writing of the Shulchan Aruch. The period from approximately 1250-1500 C.E. is that of the Rishonim and after the writing of the Shulchan Aruch until today known as the Acharonim. According to many rabbis, Acharonim could not dispute the rulings of rabbis of previous eras without supporting rulings from rabbis of those earlier periods. There are, however, orthodox scholars that take exception with this practice. Menachem Alon wrote that this tradition contradicts a ruling from the Geonic period (predating the Rishonim) called Hilketha Ke-Vatraei. In short, it means that rulings after the 4th century C.E. onward, halachic opinions of that current period would prevail over opinions of previous generations. Unfortunately, it would appear to be a loosing battle, since we believe that generations ago, when we classified the periodic growth between Rishonim and Achronim, mores were established by which this standard was etched in stone thus limiting the contributions of anyone post dating the Shulchan Aruch.
Menachem Alon points out that there is a somewhat arbitrary distinction between the Rishonim and Acharonim. Similarly, the Holocaust as a demarcation line vis a vis intellectual/halachic development fails to exists. The holocaust may be a watershed historically and theologically - not in the area of halacha. Criteria ought to be given to creative thought and their contribution to the growth and development of halacha and its impact on society. Referring back to previous generations is a necessary and absolute criterion for contextual understanding and perspective. However, self effacement as a result of arbitrary demarcation between Rishonim and Acharonim or viewing pre-holocaust gedolim as superior and unsurpassable has harmed our growth and development in creating rabbinic leadership and gedolim “meshichmo v’maale”(distinctive caliber). In essence, we created this problem and we now find ourselves in a blind alley with no exit. All we can do is poorly “imitate” past generations preserving them in ultimate veneration, all the while practicing self effacement resulting in trivial and inconsequential contributions whose long term effect on the Jewish people has yet to be felt.