My thoughts on the Slifkin ban.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Yeridos HaDoros vs. Scientific Progress

I'm sorry for not posting sooner. There is a lot to discuss, but I've been very busy and haven't had the time to give these topics the justice they deserve. For starters, there have been some excellent comments left here, some of which I intend to develop into full posts. (I've always received excellent feedback via email, but it seems more and more people are leaving intelligent comments for all to see.) I also have several important posts in the works, a few of which I have even alluded to in my blog.

However, since I only have time for a brief post now, I'd thought I'd ask a classic question that I recently discussed with someone.

Anyone who learns is constantly amazed at how deep an understanding of Torah the previous generations had. The previous generations in turn felt the same away about their predecessors. And the situation was always that way. There are statements in Chazal of how much more the previous generations knew than they did. It therefore seems extraordinarily safe to say that the sum knowledge of Torah that we have today is but a tiny fraction of what existed at the time of Mattan Torah. Yeridos HaDoros at work.

With science however the opposite phenomenon is at work. Each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous generations and so our knowledge of science grows and grows. It is true that the situation wasn't always that way. One could argue that scientific progress went on very long vacation from the ancient Greeks all the way to the Renaissance. Since the advent of the scientific revolution though not only has the sum total of scientific knowledge been growing, but you can even make a strong case that the rate of growth is increasing.

Each of these points is somewhat self evident, but when you put them together it leads to a disturbing conclusion. When Torah was first given it represented at a bare minimum a very large part of the sum total of human knowledge. When you think about what the competition was, and how abstract and broad Torah is, I think it very safe to say that Torah was the overwhelming majority of mankind's knowledge. However, since then the percentage of mankind's knowledge which consists of Torah has been declining. Even if we could somehow stop Yereidos HaDoros, the progress of science alone would mean the Torah represents a smaller percentage of mankind's knowledge each year. This may lead some to conclude that Torah is Chas V'Shalom becoming less relevant to our lives, as it consists of a smaller and smaller percentage of the totality of what we know.

There are several ways of dealing with this question, depending on your Hashkafic point of view. I didn't have time for a full post, so I thought I'd throw out this question and learn more about the people who email me and comment here. In general, I try to only bring up Hashkafic points on this blog if I feel they have relevance to the Slifkin ban. Even though this post is a slight detour, it is no exception in that regard. Try to see how each side of the Slifkin debate would answer it, but don't let that one issue color your answer. The best answer emailed to me will receive bragging rights.


At 11:34 PM, Blogger lamedzayin said...

You take yeridos hadoros for granted as proof that knowledge of Torah is decreasing. Is that so? There are more seforim and teshuvos every year, full of chiddushim. Arguably each person knows less, but one could make a strong case that yeridas hadoros is merely that with each generation there's more to know and therefore it becomes less feasible to know everything.

If we look at science the same way, it used to be that one could be a "scientist" and be expert in all of science. As the amount of material increased, there was a need to specialize more and more, but unlike in Torah studies where we see that as a bad thing, in science it's seen as largely a neutral or even positive consequence of there being more to know.

As for the "percentage" of knowledge that is Torah, if you could even measure it, what does that have to do with anything? Since when is the importance of a peice of knowledge relative to the sum of all one knows? But it might be relevant to point out that the Gra says that Torah is one of the 7 branches of wisdom, the others being sciences, which already implies your numerical argument and dismisses it.

At 12:38 AM, Blogger DarkBlueHat said...

LamedZayin - Great questions! Let's take them one by one.

Arguably each person knows less, but one could make a strong case that yeridas hadoros is merely that with each generation there's more to know and therefore it becomes less feasible to know everything.

I'm sure if you asked most Yeshiva Bochrim they would strenuously disagree with that statement. That is no reason to reject it though, so let's take it step by step. Any PhD in physics know more math and physics than the sum total of humanity did 500 years ago. Does such a thing happen in Torah? It is also clear that the sum total of knowledge of the entire scientific community grows each year. Would you say that the sum total knowledge of Torah today is much great than it was 500 years ago? If anything, we need more seforim because people need every sevara spelled out for them. Without Rav Chaim people would have no idea what to do when analyzing a Rambam. Much of what we call "chiddushim" were ain tzarich lomar in previous generations. Frequently we are just spelling out the wisdom inherent in the statements of previous generations.

In science you need to specialize for there it is harder and harder to master large portions of it. Consequently, any given scientist will know countless things that were unknown only a short while ago. Any scientist in any field who could travel back in time 50 years would win many Nobel prizes. To continue the analogy, does anyone in Torah say that they have much more Torah knowledge than the Gedolim of 200 years ago did. That if they could travel back in time 50 years they would be the unquestioned Gadol HaDor?

Since when is the importance of a piece of knowledge relative to the sum of all one knows?

When it comes to useful and important knowledge that affects your life, Torah used to be the primary source out there. Now it seems that there is more and more useful information from other sources that was simply unknown previously. Someone who wants to study Chochmas Hashem seems to have many more options. While this may not be a major problem, it does have implications. To ask one of the many questions that it leads to: Wouldn't the Nations of the World had been much more impressed with our Torah knowledge a thousand years ago than they would be now? How does this affect our mission?

But it might be relevant to point out that the Gra says that Torah is one of the 7 branches of wisdom, the others being sciences, which already implies your numerical argument and dismisses it.

Torah may be a branch, but it was by far the most developed branch. Even if someone accepts the premise you are implying, namely that the other branches of wisdom such as math and music each have as much Chochmah as Torah, it is clear that at Mattan Torah Mankind's knowledge of Torah dwarfed what was known of the other branches. Since then the situation has changed. Mankind's knowledge of one branch has decreased, while the knowledge of some of the other branches has skyrocketed – literally!

I don't believe the Gra dealt with this question for his secular knowledge seemed to be classical. He didn't seem to focus on the implications of the scientific revolution. (If anyone here has information on this please let me know, but it seems the Gra would mention Aristotle but never the much more important Isaac Newton.)

I'm sure everyone realizes this post is by no means an attack on Torah. It is not even an attack on the way some people understand Torah. There are many answers to this question, and you can learn a lot about some from how they deal with it. My reasons for bringing it up will be apparent in a later post of mine. For now though it is interesting to see what people say about it.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger bluke said...

I am not sure that you are right. For example, the Rambam had his mesora and shita while other Rishonim had very different mesoras and shitas. The Rambam didn't know them but we do. We know both the Rambam and the other Rishonim.

Imagine a big Brisker talmid chacham went back in time to 50 years before R' Chaim and started saying R' Chaim's, the Brisker Rav's etc. Torah. Would he not be thought of as a Gaon?

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DBH, you write "Even if we could somehow stop Yereidos HaDoros, the progress of science alone would mean the Torah represents a smaller percentage of mankind's knowledge each year."

I'm not so sure I agree. For example, goyim do not learn Torah. For them, Torah has always been a zero. That hasn't changed. I don't think it has changed to much for Jews either. There is still a tremendous number of Jews for whom Torah is the only course of study.

Also, I think you have to differentate purpose. Torah is a legal and moral code. That has not changed. However, regardless of how much science Chazal may or may not have known, they never did build an airplane. I have never heard any Rav or Rebbe illustrate where the instructions to build one can be found in the Torah. So, clearly, certain inventions ...perhaps not concepts, but inventions, needed science.

In other words, Torah and science serve two different functions, at least to some degree and at least, in certain areas of study.


At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to the Wolf's rebbeim, the problem is even worse. They taught him That Chazal knew science perfectly. The Tana'im and Amoraim could have built airplanes if they wanted to. Hafach Ba Hafach Ba Dekula Ba means that technology is part of Torah. It ends up that nowadays the Goyim know more Torah than the Gedolim do, since today's Gedolim could never land on the moon or even create all the technology they use in their daily lives.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

"haven't had the time to give these topics the justice they deserve...I also have several important posts in the works, a few of which I have even alluded to in my blog."

Oh, man, stop taking yourself so seriously and stop "developing ideas" and conspiracy theories and Just post whatever you want to say. You dont have to overcomplicate things, just post, you dont ponder and ponder and make things "deeper" you just get foolish
you would have much more to say if you just SAID it instead of getting so pretentious.

At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeridos HaDoros is a cop-out -- it's clear that the earlier generation's knowledge was less sophisticated and complete than the later generations -- hence the existance of the Gemara, which creates nuances and rues that didn't exist before.

At 5:22 PM, Blogger BrooklynWolf said...

I posted a topic on Yeridas Hadoros and my trying to understand it (in contraexample to scientific knowledge) a while back. I ended up arguing with one of my commentators extensively on the subject.

At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Ploni Almoni said...

I think both you & Bluke are correct.
Certain parts of Torah was forgotten before the Torah She-Bal-Peh was written down. On the other hand,after it was written down, quantitively not much material was forgotten except that the original intent of the Gemara became clouded in many cases. That is why we have all the Machlokes'es of the Rishonim & Achronim. When Rashi or the Rambam learned the Gemara he had his Peshat & did not have to bother with all the other opinions that came after him. However each succeeding generation has to study all the authoritative opinions before them, so now the Torah has indeed become greatly expanded. You have many views of Rishonim on each sugya, & then you have different opinions of the Achronim on how to understand each Rishon. The earlier generations did not have any need to study all these opinions which were not yet existant. This is why the earlier generations were able to work for a living & still have the time to be Gedolai Torah. Nowadays it is generally not feasable.

At 1:19 AM, Blogger lamedzayin said...

I posted on my blog a different approach to yeridas hadoros (which I don't think is inevitable). I don't want to cross post it here - it's long - but if you have a chance take a look.

At 1:56 AM, Blogger lamedzayin said...

make that two posts... there was a lot to say ;-)

At 6:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

lamedzayin - Great posts! I disagree with them but that's good.

At 2:53 PM, Blogger lamedzayin said...

Thanks. I've added a couple more to the series. If you have points on which you disagree, please comment away!

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Rebeljew said...

The two, Torah and science, have grown in different directions.

Torah has abandoned the pretense that it can describe the physical world. It can only dictate to the world. It therefore has tried to grow into the spiritual world. There are still some around that want to resist abandoning that pretense, which resulted in the modern "two approach" concept, mystical and rational. Pretense toward the rational approach of tradition has been weaker as the questions get stronger (and the apologetics are harder to research and formulate) and emphasis has been put on forced interpretations of mysticism, which are easier to invent and support, since they are not falsifiable.

Science has grown in its ability to describe the physical world. It has made no progress in the spiritual world or personal development, nor will it.

The relationship is truly as Einstein saw it, that they are lame and blind without each other. It is not "one block of knowledge plus one block of knowledge equals two blocks". Each of them contains the full reign of its area. As they try to encroach on each other, as Torah tries to delve into science or as science tries to delve into "raison d'etre", silly and absurd conflicts will arise.

But Torah is still the way to delve into "raison d'etre" and no amount of scientific progress can change that. Science is still the way to intellectual understanding of the physical world and no amount of pilpulim or even apologetics can change that either.

At 5:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the concept of Yeridat Hadorot I would also recommend looking at Torah Temimah on Shmot 24:12 (seif katan 28). R' Epshtein implies that between Matan Torah and the Tannaim there was no Yeridat Hadorot, since he brings proof that R' Akiva knew things that Moshe Rabbeinu didn't know. His actual wording is much stronger than the way I am presenting it here.

Although he doesn't say so directly, his logic seems to imply that this is true for after the Talmud as well, and that later generations could conceivably discover things which even the Tannaim didn't know. This would obviously also apply to the words of the Rishonim etc.

What the status of such a "new chiddush" would be, is for those wiser than me to answer...

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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