The Good Old Days?

Shofetim By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Aug 21, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

Guest commentator: Rabbi Allan Schranz, Sutton Place Synagogue, New York, NY

Many of us have a tendency to wax eloquent about the past while deprecating the present. We tend to use dismissive statements like, “when I was a kid, children read so much more,” or “the summers were brighter and less humid then” and “people had better manners back then.” Such sentiments are common. But in truth, the good old days seem to get better the further away they are.

The religious life is not exempt from such flights of logic. In the concluding mishnah of tractate Sotah (9:15), we read,” When Rabbi Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, the assiduous students of Torah ceased, when Rabbi Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased.” According to this hyperbolic statement, no current or future scholar will ever match the learning or piety of these deceased giants.

A verse from this week’s parashah can be read as a subtle rebuke to this kind of thinking: of venerating the great ones of yesterday at the expense of rejecting the leaders of today. In discussing the procedure for resolving a two-party dispute, the Torah directs the litigants to “appear before the levitical preists, or the magistrate in charge at the time,.” (Deuteronomy 17:9). The seemingly superfluous phrase “at the time,” suggests that the litigants should respect the current priests and magistrates and their judgment, and not wax nostalgic for the courts of the past.

The “yesterday-was-better” frame-of-mind sadly extends beyond our estimation of individuals, to our evaluation of trends and styles of comportment that affect all aspects of our lives, communal and individual. To gain a more sober understanding and perception of yesterday’s blessings and today’s great possibilities, we need more history and less nostalgia.

What is the difference between the two?

Nostalgia is the selective recalling of those aspects of the past that brought pleasure. No attempt is made at understanding yesterday by employing critical thinking to assess context and appreciate subtlety. History is the attempt to see the past in its entirety, pleasant and unpleasant, while understanding the context and subtlety of what is recalled. Objectivity, although it can never be fully achieved, is nonetheless a desideratum of the historical perspective. Subjectivity, often giving rise to fantasy and irrationality, is a hallmark of nostalgic flights of fancy.

Indulging in nostalgia is not a cardinal sin; yet, it may not be entirely harmless either. Often, nostalgia distracts us from the urgent task at-hand, by diverting our attention to yesterday’s Eden, real or imagined, instead of encouraging us to focus on the time and place in which we live.

We may lament that the children of the 1940’s and earlier, read more books than today’s children, while ignoring the fact that today’s youngsters have the distractions of television and computers. Instead of proclaiming how literate children used to be, wouldn’t it be more productive to direct our efforts toward devising new and enhanced computer and television tools to expand their educational opportunities?

We need be careful that in extolling past benefits we don’t simultaneously diminish our appreciation of today’s blessings which are frequently purchased at the expense of yesterday’s lesser good, real or imagined. Complaints abound about modern-day stress and attendant health hazards. Yet, it is our very stress-inducing, high-powered, frenetically paced culture that has made possible the development and distribution of life-enhancing drugs. Although we live in a more anxiety-ridden time than ever before, we live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.

In assessing the condition of the Jewish community, we need a little less nostalgia and a good deal more historical perspective. In his recently published book, American Judaism: A History, Jonathan Sarna speaks of the current renewal of Jewish religious life. Yet, there are those who claim that American Jews used to be more pious. In referring to the early part of the twentieth century, Sarna writes:

Meanwhile, synagogues, Jewish schools, and other Jewish institutions, languished from neglect.” He notes that according to the American Jewish Year Book: 1919-1920, there were slightly more than three-quarters of a million of the country’s Jews (including women and children) who were formally affiliated with a congregation in 1919, or less than twenty-three percent of the total Jewish population of 3.3 million.

When comparing the good old days to today’s mundane realities, we should think about the following phrase excerpted from a popular song “or has time rewritten every line?” If we do, we might just realize as another song proclaims, “These are the good old days.” In truth, these are the best days that have ever been, but not as good as future days will be.

The publication of Rabbi Schranz’s commentary on Parashat Shof’tim is made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.