One of the more memorable sentences in modern English literature is: “It was the best of all times; it was the worst of all times.” This view of life and current society is a variant on the theme of the half empty, half-full glass conundrum. In effect, there are always opposing views as to the state of humanity, society and for us, the Jewish people the world over, in any given generation. In the aftermath of the cataclysmic events of the past century there are two distinctively different narratives regarding the times, Jewishly speaking, that we currently live in.
One narrative sees our times as being far inferior to previous times. This is especially true in the religious, yeshiva-oriented and Chasidic sections of the community. They view life, especially religious life in pre-war Eastern Europe, as having been idyllic, holy and serene.
They subconsciously view much of what is occurring currently in our society as insufficient and hollow. They search for spiritual solace – or whatever else they experience in a primitive rural village in Ukraine, and eschew praying in the Holy City of Jerusalem or at the Western Wall. Whatever we have now is not good enough, imperfect and politicized, while in the good old days back there in Europe all was suffused with piety, holiness and solidarity.
Of course this is a fantasy view of what was and it creates an overly pessimistic view of what actually is today. It turns all of the assets of our current times – our teachers, institutions, state and national independence – into problematic liabilities when contrasted with our imagined fictional past. So the best of times can easily be seen as being the worst of times.
The truth is that there is probably far more study of Torah, at least quantitatively, than was in Eastern Europe before World War II. The daf hayomi and other such regular Torah study programs have achieved numbers and popularity previously undreamt of. The numbers of students attending yeshivot and women’s seminaries dwarf any such numbers that existed in pre-World War II Jewish society.
There are many more Torah journals and books being published than ever before in Jewish history. And the Jewish world that was so poverty stricken, in Europe, the Land of Israel and the United States is now much more affluent, comfortable, and healthier than one would have ever imagined a half century earlier.
And in spite of the resurrection of anti-Semitism the world over, the existence, influence and stability of the State of Israel gives Jews a rallying point and a potent response to those who wish us ill. In 1900 there were 6000 Jews in the Land of Israel. In 1920 there were 60,000 Jews there and in 1948 there were 600,000 Jews in Israel.
Currently there are six million, three hundred thousand Jews living in the Jewish state. So on many fronts, it seems to any rational observer that the Jewish world is stronger than it was seventy years ago.
Though there is widespread assimilation and alienation present in the Jewish world today, there is no longer the flight from Judaism that characterized Eastern European Jewry then. Atheistic communism as represented by the Soviet Union has disappeared in the main and today’s defection from religion and observance is a product of hedonism – too much and not too little – and not one of ideology and worldview.
There is a strong Jewish tradition that there is a decline in the spiritual quality of the Jewish world as more time passes from the revelation at Sinai. This leads to the tendency to view the past as being superior in every way than current situations. But it is obvious that this idea is limited to individual Torah greatness. If they were as angels then we are humans but if they were humans then we are but donkeys….buteven the donkey of Pinchas ben Yair was able to distinguish between fodder that was tithed and that which was not.
This refers to individual Torah greatness, that our generations do not include a Rashi or Rambam or Gaon of Vilna. But there is no question that the overall position of the Jewish people is better now than it was in eleventh century France or eighteenth century Lithuania. There are no equals in our time to the great spiritual scholars and savants of the past. But there is also no question that the overall situation of Jewry is better now than what it was then. And that is an important concept to remember and reflect upon.