Like the Face of a Dog
The Mishnah at the end of Sotah talks about the Messianic era. Among the many things that it says (e.g. Chutzpah Yisgeh, that brazenness will be common), it records that “the face of the generation will be like the face of the dog.”
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, explained the Mishnah as follows: When you take a dog out for a walk, the dog goes running ahead, and to the outside observer it might look like the dog is leading, and you are following. But what if you decide to turn right at a corner, and the dog continues on ahead? Within seconds, the dog will be out in front of you once again, running ahead in the new direction you have chosen. The dog isn’t really leading at all.
This, he explained, is what the Mishnah means when it says “the face of the generation” will be like the face of a dog. The leaders will only walk ahead of us the same way a dog does — taking us where we want to go.
R’ Yisrael never lived in a democracy, and probably knew nothing of what was going on in England, France and the United States even during his lifetime (1810-1883). Yet he described democracy accurately. We choose leaders to take us in the direction we want to go, and if we don’t like the direction in which they lead us, we elect new ones who will do it better.
Even if that is a desirable form of government under current circumstances, it’s quite certain that religion isn’t supposed to work that way.
I’m working on a longer article about this, but the Conservative movement has now clarified that the Mishnah, with R’ Yisrael’s commentary, was talking about religious leadership as well. Confronted with a dramatic decline, the movement has hired a PR firm, which has polled hundreds of member families to determine how the movement should “rebrand” itself.
It is truly the leadership that R’ Yisrael told us to expect — much as we might never have believed it.
R. Menken – your point is well taken, but I do want to comment on one sentence.
“R’ Yisrael never lived in a democracy, and probably knew nothing of what was going on in England, France and the United States even during his lifetime (1810-1883). ”
R. Yisroel Salanter actually lived in France for a time, as well in Germany, in addition to within Lita.
He was not a stereotypical cloistered scholar, ignorant of the outside world. He was a genius, and Jewish community activist, in addition to a great talmid chochom and tzaddik. A very astute and aware great Torah leader.
So I think he definitely was aware (within the constraints of the period he lived in and the technology then) of life in other lands and milieus.
I’m certain he was very astute and aware, but I did not know he lived outside Lita. Thank you for the correction.
Factual correction – Rav Yisroel Salanter actually lived in Paris towards the end of his life. I don’t think is is correct to say that “R’ Yisrael never lived in a democracy, and probably knew nothing of what was going on in England, France and the United States even during his lifetime”
From the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“Toward the end of his life [Rav Yisroel] Lipkin was called to Paris to organize a community among the Russian immigrants, and he remained there for two years.”
I’ve seen this particular point thrown around occasionally to attack the non-frum, but it’s not clear to me that the language of the mishna exempts the Torah world or specifies a particular form of government.
If someone can bring a good proof that it does, please do, but the language appears otherwise on its face and nothing in the famous R’ Salanter explanation gives us any kind of pass either.