When I was growing up I heard many a Rosh Yeshiva reflect wistfully on Jewish life in Europe and how it was so much more spiritually authentic than life in America. Some of those Roshai Yeshiva came from Europe, others just knew it from their own teachers.I accepted their perspective as true. We are living in an inferior spiritual world. What once was is lost and irretrievable.
But as I grew I came to wonder. Was it true? Was Jewish life in Europe pre-Holocaust spiritually superior to Jewish life in modern America. Were those the 'good old days' spiritually speaking, never to return?
I am not sure how many of you have read the Yiddish writer Chaim Grad and his classic novels like "The Aguna" or others like him.
They wrote of life in the shtetles and cities of Eastern Europe they knew both well and personally. These were not the anti-religious Yiddish writers who had an axe to grind. Nor were they writers who over-romanticized the life of the Jew of the period. They wrote what of what they experienced in both the good and bad.
What is clear from reading Chaim Grad and others is that, contrary to what I heard in Yeshiva, my ancestors in Eastern Europe were no paragons of virtue. True there were many holy men and women of distinction. But society as a whole could be as corrupt and mean spirited as anything we see in our days and worse. Cruelty was commonplace. Many a Jew, both religious and otherwise acted in ways that are inexcusable. And even religious leaders, rabbis and others were not so uncommonly morally corrupt. Over-all, the impression one gets on reading first hand accounts is that Eastern European Jewry and its social systems was no better than what we have today and in many ways far worse.
And truth be told the idealization of Eastern European Jewry, in contrast to the facts is not a one time phenomena. In the context of tradition, we always seem to glorify earlier generations. The sages of the Talmud said of themselves that they are pale imitations in comparison to the sages of the period prior. The Vilna Gaon said that we have no capacity to even imagine the excellence of our ancestors of the time of the Second Temple and to hold ourselves in comparison.
Yet the facts often point otherwise. The Jews of Bayit Sheni were the Jews of Kamtza and bar Kamtza and guilty of huge and grievous sins against each other. The zealots of the Second Temple period were often ruthless; the priests often corrupt. After-all we are talking of the generation that warranted the destruction of the Bait Hamikdash and galut for their sins!
How do we reconcile the seemingly contradictory perspectives. On the one hand within tradition we venerate earlier generations. On the other, we know factually that the past was no better and at times worse than the current climate in which we live?
The answer I think can be found in the Parsha of this week, that of Shmot. It is clear, no matter how we may want to glorify the generations of the past that our ancestors in Egypt were lacking. Just look at the stories we are given. An Egyptian task-master is beating a Jew and none but Moshe comes to his aid. One Jew is beating another and again that seems commonplace. When Moshe attempts to intervene he in turn is threatened. And later, in response to Moshe's message of redemption, he suffers scorn from his own people. From the glimpses we have of the society its not surprising the Sages tell us that Israel was very nearly too far gone to be redeemed.
Yet the Parsha also tells us of heroes. It speaks of the mid-wives Shifra and Puah who at great self-sacrifice refused to obey the Pharoah and kill the Jewish babies on birth.It tells of us Batya, the daughter of the Pharoah and of her effort to save baby Moshe. In tradition she became a convert to our faith, giving up her prestige and position in Egypt. It tells us of Moshe and his heroism in defence of his people. In fact, the very Jewish society that we read of as mediocre at best, produced heroes that can never be duplicated. No one, no matter how spiritually excellent, will ever be like Moshe.
And in this lies the great truth. Yes there is something to be said of an excellence of earlier generations that we can not aspire to attain. Not however in the society as a whole. On the contrary, the societies past, whether in Second Temple times or Eastern Europe had flaws as profound as our own. But what cannot be duplicated is the excellence in individual people, rabbis, leaders, men and women of unique stature, the holiness they attained, their character and spirituality is beyond our capacity and even, at times, our ability to imagine
So what can we take from all this.For one thing, I don't believe their is any benefit in putting down the social context in which we live. Over-all we are progressing as a people, not regressing! We get better with each generation and we need to affirm that. We are moving closer to Mashiach, not further away. More Jews study Torah today than at any time in Jewish history. Yes, many Jews are not religious, but where have we ever seen so much religious practice in an environment where not coerced to be frume! After all in earlier generations Jews had no choice but to comply with the religious rules of the kehilla. And where have we ever seen in the past such a profound movement of t'shuva, return to the faith. Its glorious!
No, there is no point in putting ourselves down. We need to affirm our People's growth and spiritual progress...and build on it.
Yet we do need to be mindful that we lack the individual excellence that existed in the Greats of yesteryear. Today we have no Rambam, Vilna Gaon or even Chafaitz Chayim. We affirm that so as to keep us personally humble and reverential to the teachings of the past, teachings and guidance we need so much in-order to continue our journey to the redemption.