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This essay is chapter 3 from my book “Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind.”
Why Are Ancient Rabbinic Decisions Binding?
Most Orthodox Jews today are convinced that the concept of the “decline of the generations” is a fundamental and essential Jewish doctrine. They insist that the ancient rabbis were superior to their descendants in intellect and piety – especially the former – and that each subsequent generation deteriorates from the ancient rabbis’ lofty status.
Those who are certain that they lack the intellectual abilities of the earlier rabbis and can never approach their understanding never question early rabbinic pronouncements and accept them with humility and without thought.
Maimonides’ View on the Decline of Intelligence
Menachem Kellner, in his 1996 book Maimonides on the “Decline of the Generations” and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority, explains that Moses Maimonides rejected this notion of the decline of the generations out of hand. Maimonides was convinced that the early mishnaic and talmudic rabbis were ordinary human beings possessing no supernatural intellectual powers and that their decisions were not based on divine revelation. Maimonides recognized the authority of the earlier rabbis and accepted their decisions but only because each of their rulings “derives from the role they played in Jewish history.” Maimonides was thus expressing the belief that the rabbinic decisions were not correct per se, but, since the majority of Jews had decided to accept the early rabbis’ halakhic decisions, they became authoritative.
Kellner compares the ancient rabbis to the eighteenth-century framers of the United States Constitution: “the framers of the US Constitution have a kind of authority which, in normal circumstances, cannot be limited or overturned.” Although they were human and did not differ from all other people of their generation or people today, their authority derives from “the system of law accepted in the United States.” Thus, the focus is not on the intellectual ability of the framers, but on the practical decision made by American citizens to accept what the framers wrote.
Nevertheless, Maimonides teaches that the acceptance of rabbinical statements applies only to halakhah, rules relating to behavior, but not to rabbinical opinions on non-halakhic matters. The reason for this conclusion should be obvious. The early rabbis’ views were usually based on the science of their times; these primitive conclusions inevitably led, at times, to error on the part of the rabbis. Therefore, Maimonides insists, one is free to analyze and consider the opinions of the rabbis and then accept, reject or modify them; in fact, this is the very purpose for which God granted humans intelligence: to study and evaluate.
Maimonides records his assessment of rabbis and other sages of the former historic period in the introduction to his Mishneh Torah. He writes that the halakhic component of the “Babylonian Talmud is binding on all Israel … because all the customs, decrees and institutions mentioned in the Talmud received the assent of all Israel.” Thus, only the “customs, decrees and institutions,” the halakhic elements, received “the assent of all Israel.” However, the non-halakhic opinions did not receive that assent and thus are not obligatory.
The Talmudic Debate on the Deterioration of Intelligence
There are approximately a dozen passages in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds that may express the notion that later rabbis will be intellectually inferior to their predecessors; however, these texts are generally unclear. The most famous is: “If the early scholars were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier scholars were sons of men, we are like asses.” This assertion and others like it could refer to the decline in intellectual ability, but they can also be respectful testimonials (“my teacher was a very wise man”) or statements of humility (“I am really not as wise as my teacher”). In fact, some of these opinions state clearly that the earlier generations were only more moral, pious or spiritual than their descendants.
Of the roughly one-dozen talmudic rabbis who posit that there is a decline over generations, only about half seem to say that this decline is in the intellectual realm. These half-dozen opinions certainly do not constitute “settled Jewish doctrine,” proclaiming that every generation is necessarily inferior to its predecessor. These are no more than personal feelings.
Sherira Gaon (906–1006), the spiritual leader of Babylonian Jewry, calls the idea of the disintegration of the intellect “conjecture.” He reveals that the concept of deterioration invented by some scholars to extol the knowledge of the early rabbis was a political and theological gambit to combat the Karaites who insisted that a Jew need only observe the Torah’s commandments and not the rabbinical interpretations.
Beside these negative assessments, there are an approximately equal number of talmudic texts that appear to posit that later scholars are superior to their ancestors. The Talmud declares that Ezra, Hillel and dozens of Hillel’s students were as great as Moses. In one passage, Moses admits that Rabbi Akiva was superior to him.
Maimonides’ Rejection of the Decline of the Generations
Maimonides was convinced, as are most scientists today, that the world progresses intellectually rather than regressing. It goes without saying that there are fluctuations, but the general trend is toward greater intellectual achievement.
In his Commentary the Mishnah, Introduction to Perek Chelek, he states, for example, that the coming of the Messiah will not be a miraculous event. It will be a natural occurrence, brought about by people, as they improve their minds and their understanding, learning science and bettering the world.
Repeatedly, in his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides demonstrates how science has been progressing since ancient times. In 2:24, for example, he admits that future generations will understand science better than he does.
I heard the opposite view expressed by a rabbi who stated that he knew that the circumference of a circle was exactly three times the diameter and not approximately 3.14159 as claimed by mathematicians, because the Talmud states that this is the case.
Maimonides felt that the earlier generations were not only intellectually and scientifically inferior, but even less developed spiritually than their descendants. In 3:32, he states that God had to promulgate certain laws of worship because of the primitive thinking of the generation of the Exodus. In 3:51, he states that people will ultimately improve and come to understand true worship.
In his introduction to the second book of his Guide of the Perplexed, as we mentioned earlier, Maimonides criticizes those who passively accept the views of earlier scholars without using their own reasoning ability: “A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in the back.”
Maimonides: Ahead of His Time
At the time, very few individuals agreed with Maimonides. He – like a limited number of other thinkers – was ahead of his time in this respect. The non-Maimonidean thinking typical of the era can be illustrated by a short review of the history of Christian Europe.
Scholars disagree on the precise dating of the various periods, but it can be said that the Medieval Period of history began in Christian countries shortly after Rome’s acceptance of Christianity and subsequent decline, around the beginning of the fifth century. It lasted until around the middle of the fourteenth century. Historians call these years in Christian countries the Dark Ages. It was a period of widespread ignorance, a time when the Church felt, for example, that it was far better for Christians not to read the Bible because it would cause them to question their faith.
The Medieval Period was followed by the Renaissance, which extended from around the mid-fourteenth to the mid-seventeenth century. The populace looked to the past during this time, the very meaning of renaissance – a revival of the activity and spirit of the past. They examined and copied what they considered the glories of Rome and Athens and modeled their thinking on the thoughts of these cultures. Indeed, some scholars date the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Modern Age to 1674, the date of death of the classically-minded writer Milton, who questioned many superstitious notions of his own and prior generations.
In the Modern Age, individuals and their communities began to comprehend that they could progress beyond the stagnancy of old ideas. Church-supported superstitions were finally tossed aside (although still clutched tightly by many individuals), there was a rise of science, religious tolerance began to grow, and rationalism awoke again and came into vogue.
Maimonides lived during the Christian Dark Ages, in the twelfth century, but reflected the enlightened forward-thinking rationalism of the Modern Age, incorporating in his thought the desire to improve and the self-assurance of the contemporary world.
Abraham ibn Ezra: In Agreement with Maimonides
Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) was also convinced that human intelligence increases over the generations. In his commentary to Genesis 11:1 “one language, a few words,” he writes that in his age wise people speak several languages and have extensive vocabularies. However, people were limited in the early biblical period; even intelligent people then knew only a single language and spoke with a reduced vocabulary.
Joseph Karo’s Discussion of Maimonides’ View
Joseph Karo (1488–1575) wrote a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah called Kesef mishneh. Although he believed in the doctrine of the “decline of the generations,” he recognized that Maimonides did not. In his comment on Maimonides’ Laws of the Rebellious Elder 2:1–3, he posed the question: if Maimonides is correct, and later rabbis are more intelligent than earlier ones, why did the talmudic sages not dispute the earlier rabbis whose ideas are in the Mishnah? He answered his own question: “It is possible to say that when the Mishnah was completed it was established and accepted that later generations would not dispute the earlier generations.” This is precisely Maimonides’ position in his introduction to his Mishneh Torah.
The Current Scientific View on IQs
The New York Times of July 30, 2006 reported that the “Human bodies [of people living today] are simply not breaking down the way they did before.” People are living longer, are taller, look better and have healthier lives. “Even the human mind seems improved. The average IQ has been increasing for decades.” Thus modern scientific studies have confirmed Maimonides’ impressive perceptive thinking.
A basic doctrine among many Orthodox Jews is the conviction that the earlier generations of rabbis were intellectually superior to their descendants due to a natural decline in intelligence from one generation to the next. Those who hold this view use it to support their decision not to question the rulings of earlier rabbis. They take a passive non-questioning stance in regard to halakhah.
Some have gone so far as to apply the notion to all opinions of the early rabbis, even on non-halakhic matters such as their opinions about science, mathematics, medicine and the like. They ignore – even disdain – the findings of recent science, and closet themselves away from the light of modern discoveries.
It is true that some declarations by ancient rabbis may reflect this superior view of their abilities. However, other rabbis of the time clearly state that they believe that the intellectual abilities of the rabbis do not decrease over the generations.
Maimonides took the latter view and even taught that each generation is, on the whole, learning more and more and increasing intellectually. In fact, he stressed that every individual of every generation, both Jewish and non-Jewish, has a divinely ordained duty to learn and improve and use their knowledge and intelligence to better themselves and the world. Why, then, have Jews decided to accept the views of the ancient rabbis? Returning to our discussion of the US constitutional framers, we can now complete the analogy. Much like the acceptance of the constitution by American citizens, the acceptance of the views of the rabbis is a public political decision for the survival of the nation, unrelated to the IQs of earlier generations or the inferior intellectual abilities of the current generation.