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The Death of Progress

Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

"I have lost my faith in the idea of progress." With those words columnist Anthony Lewis spoke the epilogue to his career as a leading voice of the "Liberal Left." On the occasion of his retirement, after 50 years with the New York Times, Lewis' retrospective comments on the past century were cast in gloom: "the most disappointing fact of life in the 20th century," he said, "was that, contrary to my expectations, after the Holocaust, the century continued to be riddled with the extraordinary ability of human beings to hate others..." He went on to cite the failure of socialism, as well as the more recent disillusionments of Rwanda, Bosnia, September 11th, and the ongoing violence in the Middle East.

It has taken over two centuries, but the Enlightenment vision of a world perfected by human reason has yielded to the realities of human madness. For this long, Western society has been permeated with the belief that Progress -- the eradication of poverty, disease and war through science and social engineering -- was the direction of society. Our naivete has been swept aside by oceans of blood and unrelenting evil.

Thus far, the disillusionment of Western man. But for anyone who views the world from the point of view of Jewish tradition, there is nothing to be disillusioned about. On the contrary, the message of the Enlightenment itself held as much threat as promise. Aside from its pernicious secularizing and assimilating influence, the idea of Progress was, to the traditional Jew, anti-historical. For the Jewish view has always been that the Revelation at Sinai was the high point (the peak moment, if you will) of human experience. Prior to that moment -- in which the Jewish nation had its inception and a new moral law was given to all nations -- there had been a kind of progress. It was not a straight-line graph, to be sure, but an inexorable movement nonetheless toward a moment of perfection; toward that perfect interface between the Creator and the created, in which morality was defined and a path set for all time. That was progress.

Since then, there has been what is called yeridat ha-dorot, the descent of the generations. The further one gets from Revelation, the more remote the experience of ultimate truth, the further one is from perfection. This principle is reflected in the primacy of Biblical over rabbinical law; the authority of the Talmud over any law-making that followed it; the awe in which the later generations hold the former ones; and the respect for parents and elders. As Judaism sees it, not only did we not evolve from monkeys; we devolved from generations who were closer to G-d and His wisdom than we are. The march of science -- ever accompanied by the invention of more and more efficient methods of death and destruction -- has not broken or even slowed the downward spiral of the human spirit. Does anyone still think that all of our problems will be solved by the installation of a computer in every classroom?

What will follow the demise of Progress? Mr. Lewis maintains that "it's still worth appealing to reason." But his rationalist appeal is born of desperation. The feeling is that not only is there no light at the end of the tunnel, but that we are now just entering the tunnel -- except that we will take our New York Times subscriptions with us into the darkness (albeit without Anthony Lewis's column).

The forward look of Judaism has taken all this into account. The Talmud predicts that in the days prior to the Messianic Era, governments will turn to heresy. In fact, it is a pre-condition to redemption. For only when state-sponsored atheism and disbelief in G-d is everywhere will the time be ripe for the fulfillment of the historical promise of peace and harmony among nations. Only after ideology takes power and then totally fails to solve society's problems will the world be receptive to a different kind of solution.

This does not mean that Judaism simply wishes to turn the clock back. On the contrary, the Jewish world today makes full use of the advances of science; witness the presence of religious Jews in the ranks of the professions and high-tech, as well as our extensive use of computers and internet for disseminating Torah.

The Talmud states that "when the Jewish people are living in accordance with G-d's will, their work will be done by others." Who are those "others"? Now we know that they include the machines, the computers and robots of the contemporary world. The Jewish perspective is not that of Judaism versus science, but of science in the service of spiritual endeavor.

The belief in the capacity of humankind to solve its problems solely through the exercise of reason -- man's worship of his own mind -- has been one of the greatest obstacles to spritual growth. The death of Progress, then, is not only not a reason to despair, it is a reason to be hopeful. For now the real progress can begin -- the spiritual growth of humankind, a return to the truths of Sinai in the modern world.

Sources: New York Times Weekly Review, Sunday, December 16, 2001; Talmud Sanhedrin 97a; Talmud Brochos 35b; Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg.

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