Titanic II and Yeridos Hadoros

Yeridos Hadoros translates as “the Decline of Generations”

Rabbi Benjamin Blech had an interesting piece last week at Aish.com on the Costa Concordia disaster. A few years ago, Rabbi Blech served as the scholar-in-residence on a kosher cruise on the magnificent ocean liner. Guests were escorted on a tour of the state of the art ship and its multiple levels of safety devices. At one point on the tour, the guide remarked, “No one will ever have a Titanic experience here.”

The builders of the Titanic famously asserted with even greater hubris that not even G-d Himself could sink it. Yet the Titanic did not survive its maiden voyage, and 1,517 passengers drowned.

In both cases, the ships were brought down, not by failures in technical design, but by the moral failings of those in charge. The owners of theTitanic were eager to claim the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing, and thus settled on a northerly route, at a time of year when that area of the Atlantic was known to be still filled with icebergs. Worse, the telegraph operator received numerous warnings from another ship of a huge iceberg directly in its path. But the telegraph operator received large tips for transmitting the messages of wealthy patrons, and told the ship sending the warnings to stop pestering him and tying up his lines, which he could put to more profitable use. As a consequence, the captain of the Titanic never received any warning of the danger looming ahead.

In the case of the Costa Concordia, the ship became grounded because the captain decided to show off his magnificent toy to friends on the shore of the nearby island.

Human foible remained a constant in the hundred years between the Titanic and the Costa Concordia disasters. But there were differences as well. The captain of the Titanic instructed his officers to maintain calm as women and children were allocated the first seats on the lifeboats, of which there were far too few because the possibility of disaster never entered the owners’ minds. Some of the richest members of New York high society went down with the ship in evening dress, prepared to die as “gentlemen.” The captain did not desert the ship, and the ship’s orchestra continued playing as it sank.

The contrast could not have been sharper to the Costa Concordia disaster, in which passengers clawed for seats on the lifeboats, with the strongest prevailing. One of the first off the ship was the captain, who abandoned a sinking ship and ignored an order from the Italian coast guard to return to the ship. He was promptly nicknamed the “chicken of the sea.”

One hundred years ago, there still existed a code of honor by which honorable people – gentlemen, if you will – were expected to comport themselves. Such codes of honor are for the most part a remnant of the past.

So far we have been discussing the non-Torah world. But a similar decline can be seen in our world as well, albeit over a much longer time frame. This week I was learning a Gemara in Bava Basra, which discusses how far earlier generations would go to avoid having to take a shvuah (oath), even when they were telling the truth. Another assumption of the Gemara is that a person will not lie about matters that are likely to become known eventually.

Yet today we find instances of the most bald-faced lies. Signatures of prominent rabbonim are affixed to letters that they never signed, and this is done despite the fact that the number of signatures added in this fashion is so great that it will inevitably become known.

Every lie lessens the trust that is the basic glue holding any society together. But the avla (outrage) is compounded many times when it lessens public trust in pronouncements purporting to be from those upon whose leadership the public relies. Even if the one promoting false messages is motivated by his vision of the public good, it is hard to conceive of any purpose that could compensate for compromising public trust in the words of the gedolim.

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11 Responses

  1. S. says:

    אַל-תֹּאמַר מֶה הָיָה שֶׁהַיָּמִים הָרִאשֹׁנִים הָיוּ טוֹבִים מֵאֵלֶּה כִּי לֹא מֵחָכְמָה שָׁאַלְתָּ עַל-זֶה

  2. Ellen says:

    “Even if the one promoting false messages is motivated by his vision of the public good….”

    Unfortunately that is precisely the excuse they give. And when conflicting facts come to light, they maintain that people should ignore those details and nonetheless stick to the “right” message.

    Many of us don’t see it that way, but to them we are religious fools.

  3. joel rich says:

    imho the misattributers would suggest a source for their actions from eruvin 51a (i would disagree)

  4. dr. bill says:

    There are halakhic principles that permit some level of “not telling the whole story” or even “a white lie,” that poskim have addressed. However, IMHO the hagiography literature, the idealized / sanitized versions of life in pre-war europe, etc. have created a slippery slope where many have allowed their personal judgement of what need be said, to substitute for emes. When even major figures have or are silent over chalk marks on their cuffs, is it any wonder that many cross the line?

  5. Bob Miller says:

    At what point will we have absorbed so many popular “ought to have been” statements and stories that we’ll lose contact with who really did what? We get enough poorly disguised fiction from the general media.

    Parallel to our true Mesorah, the bedrock of Yahadus, sits a mass of modern, misleading fiction that could put our overall veracity in doubt.

  6. Mr. Cohen says:

    Over the past decade (approximately), I have made careful studies of
    classic mussar books, and I am amazed by what the authors complain about,
    with respect to the sins that were committed by their contemporaries.

    This has caused me considerable confusion with respect to
    the concept of Yeridot HaDorot. Some short examples:

    Chovot HaLevavot, Introduction Section:
    Only the most zealous and best people [of previous generations] lived
    up to these duties [of the heart]; the rest of the people greatly needed
    encouragement and instruction in them. How much more so in our time!
    Most people ridicule the wisdom of the commandments of the limbs,
    how much more so of the duties of the heart.

    Rambam commentary on tractate Avot, chapter 4, paragraph 5:
    Whoever benefits from the honor of the Torah [Kavod HaTorah]
    in this world, his life is removed from the world, meaning the
    future world that is for the righteous. People have sinned
    against this obvious teaching and thrown it behind their backs.

    Sefer Mitzvot Katan, Introduction, paragraph 1:
    Because of [our] sins, the Torah is forgotten…

    Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid, Sefer Chasidim, chapter 123:
    These are the thought that a man has day and night: women and money.

    Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid, Sefer Chasidim, Chapter 374:
    Behold there are very many masters of Talmud who do not have
    Fear of Heaven [Yirat Shamayim] in them, and they have very many students.

    Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, Shaarei Teshuvah, Shaar 1, Paragraph 8:
    Here the author lists sins that increased in his generation:
    vain oaths, cursing Jews with the Name of G_d, saying His Name in vain
    or in dirty places or with dirty hands, failing to help the poor,
    slander, causeless hate, arrogance scaring people, immodest gazing
    and neglect of Torah study.

    Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, Shaarei Teshuvah, Shaar 3, Paragraph 2:
    I have seen that the majority of the [Jewish] nation looks upon
    many major sins as if they were minor, and concerning sins for which
    the punishment is death or cutting off [caret], they consider them
    to be additional [unnecessary] features or [optional] ways of
    extra piety [chassidut]. They do not listen or accept rebuke.

    Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura:
    The people regard my speeches as entertainment.
    They praise my sermons but they do not really change.

    Maharal himself was banished from Prague, after his first stint there,
    because the people resented his carping about one of their prevalent vices:
    adultery; and this in a community that numbered just several thousand Jews.

    Shulchan Aruch, Chelek Orach Chaim, Siman 98, Sif 2:
    …we do not concentrate at all when we pray…

    Kav HaYashar, Chapter 75:
    There is a widespread evil practice in these lands where Jews
    go to inns Erev Shabbat and become intoxicated,
    and are so drunk they are not able to make Kiddush correctly.

    Kav HaYashar, Chapter 76:
    Many men are guilty of chasing after non-Jewish women [nashim zarim].

    Kav HaYashar, Chapter 82:
    Our women go about with necks stretched out, bare down to their breasts.

    Kav HaYashar, Chapter 94:
    I have seen a great stumbling in most countries, that when Jews
    attend synagogue [on the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av] they do not
    recite kinot. Instead they joke with lightheadedness as if it were
    the rejoicing of Simchat Torah.

    Shevet Mussar, Chapter 27, paragraph 38:
    Some people only repent when they are old;
    and most not until they are near death.

    Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzato, Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 11:
    Behold, lying is a terrible sickness that has spread very widely among people.

  7. DF says:

    There are many sources you can add to this list. [There’s a wonderful Maharsha in Shabbos that speaks about yeshivah bachurim wasting time on “tiyulim”; reads like it was written yesterday.] But already in Talmudic times people spoke about “previous generations” as though they were somehow more special. That’s the meaning of the famous “if they were like men, we are like donkeys; and if we are like men, they were like angels” passage. And going back further, as S. noted, they were saying the same thing in Biblical times too. There are people in every generation who sigh and say “if only we were more like Generation A”, whereas, if you actually examine Generation A, they were no different than any other generation.

    [YA – It is important to differentiate between any observed or assumed erosion of values across generations, and the halachically significant assumption of yeridas ha-doros. The latter assumes that the great talmidei chachamim of a generation are generally not as capable as their equivalent in previous generations. It is the reason why amora’im don’t take issue with tana’im. It is a phenomenon that talmidei chachamim have observed and written about for hundreds of years. Some of the stellar giants of the past wrote quite explicitly about how small they considered themselves relative to what they observed in their own rabbeim.

    For reasons for this phenomenon (besides the usual one of dilution over time of the original power of Divine revelation – see Deraschos HaRan pgs. 267-268), see Malbim, Koheles 7:10]

    It is, indeed, very disturbing when one realizes that previous generations were not so different than us, after all. That’s why it’s not a good idea to place so much emphasis on this notion. It casues a lot of angst for people when they realize it isnt true.

  8. S. says:

    To add to Mr. Cohen, see Or La-yesharim (Prague 1785) the collected derashos of R. Zerach Eidliz. #14, given in 1769, says

    “Behold, this year about ten babies were circumcised in the synagogue, born to unwed mothers, and these are known to us; the females are [obviously] not known. Woe to us that this has happened in our time, this great licentiousness in our generation.”

    http://hebrewbooks.org/44610 pg. 94 of the pdf.

  9. David in Jerusalem says:

    Mr. Cohen (and others)
    A few decades ago, a Jerusalem rosh yeshivah (Rav Chaim Uri Freund) contended to me that yeridos hadoros applies specifically to the talmidei chachamim and gedolim. He pointed out that the Chazal decreed for the repetition of the Shemonei Esreh for the sake of vast majority of Jews who couldn’t read, whereas over the generations the level of literacy has only improved to the point where nearly 100% of observant Jewish men and women can read the Siddur today.
    In the same way that the hamon ha-am (general populace) has improved in literacy, despite yeridos hadoros, it could also very well be that they’re improving or staying about the same in terms of morality.
    Yeridos hadoros seems to be limited to the levels of Torah scholarship and yiras shamayim of the leading scholars of the generation, as we clearly see the decline from Nevi’im to Tanaim to Amoraim to Geonim to Rishonim to Acharonim.
    This point might help to clear up some of your confusion about yeridos hadoros, but it doesn’t mitigate your critique of how it’s misapplied in this article.

  10. cohen y says:

    ‘the concept of Yeridot HaDorot’is extremely complex and should be left for a different venue.

  11. Allan Katz says:

    I agree with David in Jerusalem that Y.hadoros applies mainly to the Torah leadership. The general population is more learned and challenging and observant. Maybe Y. hadoros can be applied to the midos, character and personalities of each generation.

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