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Parshas Bo (5771)

The Ancients and the Moderns: Who's Better?

The famous sage, Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (1878-1953), popularly known by the name of his magnum opus Chazon Ish, was a European-born rabbi who became leader of Chareidi (Orthodox) Judaism in Israel, where his final 20 years, from 1933 to 1953, were spent.

In his classic work of Jewish ethics Emunah U’Bitachon (“Faith and Trust”), translated into English by Y. Goldstein Am Asefer.Publications 2008, the Chazon Ish pens a magnificent essay about the ‘competition’ between earlier and later generations:

The earlier generations claim: “We are more clever than you; the generations are deteriorating with the flow of time …” To which the later generations will retort: “But the earlier generations were idlers – they had no contact with other nations, and the [people in the] various parts of the world did not know one another. All their food was natural, and they dressed in sheepskins. They fought their wars with swords and spears, bows and arrows and catapults. But we have put down railroad tracks all over the world, and we have created the telegraph and the telephone and the radio; we have made all mankind into one family. All the scholars of the world confer together – the world is one big city to us; we have even made towers that fly though the air, and we are lighter in flight than eagles. We have also built many factories that produce various goods such as our forefathers never imagined. We have also invented weapons, world-destroying bombs, that can kill thousands and tens of thousands. It is below our dignity to compete with earlier generations that lacked all these things – would a giant want to compete with a dwarf?”

The Chazon Ish writes further that the shallow, unreasoned person will tend to judge on the spot in favor of the later generations. Not so the person who is guided by his intellect:

The intellect judges, sits and studies, and using deep reasoning it determines that wisdom’s importance lies in its theoretical study, and neither side should place its many practical applications on the scales … True, the later generations have made much use of wisdom in the service of mankind, and have enriched the world greatly, but that is not a reason to belittle the previous generations, which gave themselves over completely to the acquisition of wisdom and understanding, without intending to use their wisdom to invent new inventions on this earth. Moreover, they intentionally refrained from doing this, for they feared that these things might fall into the hands of disreputable people, who might use them for various idolatrous purposes and for bloodshed … Besides, it is natural for human beings not only to invent many things, but to forget much as well. We have no idea how much has been forgotten!... We know of the wisdom of the Egyptians, whose mummies have remained intact until present times; the scientists of the past few generations have not been able to unravel their secret. It is said [of the embalming of our forefather Jacob in Egypt] “Forty days passed, for such is the time of the embalmed…” (Genesis 50:3). We see from this that it was a lengthy process, involving a complicated procedure and necessitating various chemical substances to be used in turn. In Africa and Rome one also sees beautiful buildings, evidence of hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

The Chazon Ish goes on to prove the superiority of the earlier generations:

The wisdom of the later generations is based on that of the former ones, who discovered the carbon dioxide and the oxygen in the air, and the uses of their separation from each other; studied ores found in the depths of the earth – gold, silver, iron – and the methods of their extraction. On the basis of the development of this wisdom, the later generations conducted many experiments. Much of the glory should go to the ones who first opened the doors of wisdom; they were not handed the keys by a previous generation, but rather used their hearts and their great talents to unlock those gates of knowledge. The later generations, in contrast, entered gates that were already open.

So maybe the ancients weren’t as ‘backward’ as we moderns are inclined to think. Especially if we are to believe the Biblical narrative in which great personalities like Abraham and Moses actually received Divine prophetic communication – making them far superior to us, at least from a spiritual standpoint, considering that none of us moderns has ever been contacted directly by G-d.

I was reminded of the Chazon Ish’s famous essay this week as I learned my daily page of Talmud in Tractate Avodah Zarah 28b (the section of the Talmud which deals primarily with the laws of idolatry and our relations with non-Jews), where it discusses various medical treatments that the rabbis used to heal the sick:

Rabbi Abbahu had pain in his ear and he was given some directions by Rabbi Yochanan — others say, by those in the House of Study. What were the directions? — Similar to those of Abaye [who said]: My mother told me that kidneys were only made to [heal] the ear.

I must admit that I was skeptical when I first read this passage. After all, whoever heard of a connection between the kidneys and the ears? So I snooped around the internet a little bit until I found this amazing piece of information:

A new study, based on research done by Dr. David Harris, associate dean of Sydney Medical School-Westmead at the University of Sydney, finds that older people with moderate chronic kidney disease are more likely than others their age to develop hearing loss. Australian researchers reached their conclusions after studying more than 2,900 people aged 50 and older, of whom 513 had moderate kidney disease. Of those, 54% reported having hearing loss, while only 28% of the others did. Tests showed that 30% of patients with chronic kidney disease had severe hearing loss, while just 10% of the others did. The research suggests that there's a strong connection between chronic kidney disease and hearing loss. The study was published in the October 2010 edition of the American Journal of Kidney Diseases.

Imagine that! Scientists have just now figured out that the kidneys affect the proper function of the ears. Isn’t it amazing that this connection was made well over 1500 years ago by the Sages of the Talmud without the benefit of modern research tools?!

It calls to mind the words of Dr. Robert Jastrow, founding director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (when he was discussing the theological implications of the “Big Bang”): "Now we see how the astronomical evidence supports the biblical view of the origin of the world....the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same. Consider the enormousness of the problem: Science has proved that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks: 'What cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter or energy into the universe?' And science cannot answer these questions. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

Maybe the “good old days” were better than we think ….

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