Will we ever end poverty, hunger and genocide? Is there hope that tomorrow will look brighter than today? The social justice movement is guided by a messianic vision that a world that is more just and free is possible. Can we, as Jews, embrace this promise of progress?
Since the Holocaust, most philosophers have rejected the notion that the Enlightenment represented the beginning of an era of progress. Two thousand years earlier, the rabbis rejected the idea of progress, claiming that the generations are in a steady state of decline. The Talmud refers to one generation as being of men, and to a later one, as of donkeys (Shabbat 112b). The Sages exempted no one, even calling the matriarch Sarah a monkey when compared to Eve (Bava Batra 58a)
This decline is punctuated mainly by ignorance of Divine truth – the prophetic ruach hakodesh ceased to inspire humans with the deaths of Chagai, Zechariah, and Malachi (Sanhedrin 11a) – but also by the loss of basic ability: “In former generations people made Torah their vocation and their trades their avocation, and they succeeded in both; in latter generations, when people made their trades their vocations and Torah their avocation, they did not succeed in either” (Berachot 35b).
Although the Sages articulated their clear concern regarding spiritual and intellectual decline, this is not the whole story. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook subscribed to the Hegelian school of thought that embraced historical progress, and articulated his vision thus: “We should not immediately feel obliged to refute any idea that comes to contradict something in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it. In so doing we reach a more exalted level, and… the ideas are clarified. And thereafter, when we are not pressured by anything, we can confidently also fight on the Torah’s behalf” (Iggerot haReayah I, 163-164). Rabbi Kook further defended the idea of progress, suggesting, “An evolution marked by constant progress provides solid grounds for optimism” (I, 369).
Other Jewish voices share this view that we need not merely long for the past. Rabbi Shlomo Almoli, for one, argued that greater access to information makes it “plausible that the knowledge and understanding of the latter generations should exceed that of the former ones;” the Midrash Pinchas claimed that while we are, indeed, very far from the past sources of spiritual light, (Creation, Sinai, and the Temple), we stand closer to the anticipated “light of the Messiah,” and are correspondingly more illuminated. The 13th century Shibolei Haleket argued that while we may have lost great scholars, “like that of dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, our view is much broader and deeper than previous generations.”
In addition to the search for religious truth as barometer of progress and decline, we must be concerned with the general human welfare. Today, we have more access to transportation, medication, and technology than ever before; we have a greater awareness of tragedy, and more resources to combat oppression and injustice. Eradicating poverty and hunger is now only a matter of human will.
For this reason, we must maintain hope in progress, in the possibility that we can create a more just world, where all children have access to quality education and all people have adequate food, shelter, and healthcare. We may have diminished access to more simple truths, but we have a greater potential than ever to embrace the more complex truths and responsibilities of our interconnected universe.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. To read more Street Torah, click here.