🚘 You Drive Me Crazy 🤪
💸 The Better Angels of Our Decline 💸
“Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.” -Doug Larson
I loathe “the Driving Teshuvah” (“TDT”).
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If you have no familiarity with Conservative Judaism (“CJ”), you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.
But if you have any familiarity with CJ, it is almost impossible not to have an opinion on “A Responsum on the Sabbath,” more inaccurately called “the Driving Teshuvah,” published by Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman in 1950.In essence, if someone ever told you that CJ permits driving on Shabbat, TDT is the paper to which they are referring; a short history can be found below.
Why do I loathe TDT?
Presumably, if you are familiar with TDT, you are hoping that I share your opinion about it, and people who know about TDT are almost never neutral. If you are “against” TDT, Conservative Judaism basically sentenced itself to death the minute the paper was passed, and all struggles today can be rooted in the paper’s passage.If you are “for” TDT, people who are against this paper are the typical ivory tower elitists who know nothing about what Judaism is like in the “real world.”
And this is why I hate TDT, because the debate about TDT is a perfect example where opinions abound, evidence is scarce, and yet I am forced to listen to terrible hot takes, anyway.I have no particular opinion on whether or not something that was written 70 years ago had a positive or negative impact; in fact, I think it’s impossible to know.
The more interesting question: Why is TDT such an easy target?
The answer: Our minds long for simple explanations to explain decline.
Every day, certain cognitive biases can lead any person to assume that the past was better than it actually was, including the peak-end theory and confirmation bias.
But what if you’re someone who believes not only that the past was better than the present, but that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and there is nothing we can do to stop it?
Well, my friend, you get your own heuristic, declinism (what is sometimes known as rosy retrospection). Congratulations! It’s like getting a lump of coal for Christmas 🎄.
In 1918, Osward Spengler’s The Decline of the West sought to explain why all great civilizations inevitably decline over time. Spengler did not argue that the past is always better than the present, only that the history includes “a purely organic story of blossoming, ripening, wilting and dying within the set period.”Every great civilization went through a process of growth and decline that follows a particular pattern, and thus what is happening today is simply a repetition of a cyclical process. In the grand scheme of things, we’re not that special.
Spengler is a complicated figure: his personal views about race and religion are problematic, and many have used his ideas to promote Nazism, fascism, and racism.So while it was a tough choice to include him in this newsletter, it’s hard to argue with Adam Gopnik’s assertion that The Decline of the West is “The great summit of declinism—the peak from which all subsequent declinism has declined” (an incredible rhetorical use of damning with faint praise).
As a result, I prefer focusing on a modern variant of declinism known as “rosy prospection,” thinking the future will be better than it is likely to be, and “rosy retrospection,” thinking that the past was better than it was. Terence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson argue that “Anticipating and remembering events that one is personally involved with is a way of enhancing self-regard.”Remembering events a certain way is a way to make ourselves look better; we are not dispassionate observers. We might imagine we are writing history when we remember past events, but most often we are writing memoirs.
Returning to TDT, the one indisputable fact is that this paper was written when a much larger group of Jews affiliated with CJ than today. Thus, TDT offers a simple, linear way to explain CJ’s decline, a decline that might have been inevitable. The truth of the assertion does not matter; it’s just easier. And easier is seldom more accurate.
The Better Angels of Our Nature
Steven Pinker is one of these scholars I imagine is either sitting at his desk writing his next 1,000-page book or sitting in a comfy reading chair reading 50 different books so that he can write his next 1,000-page book. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s an intellectual treasure.
And learning about declinism is a great opportunity to learn about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The book is surprisingly readable for something so dense; I suppose this is what happens when your author wrote a book analyzing books on how to write more clearly.
The Better Angels of Our Nature focuses on how violence declined throughout human history, what Pinker argues “may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”Pinker offers copious and essentially bulletproof data. However, Pinker offers a larger critique of the “loathing of modernity” presented by many commentators, and how violence is often presented as a trump card:
“Even with all these reasons why no romantic would really step into a time machine, the nostalgic have always been able to pull out one moral card: the profusion of modern violence…Surely no Boeing 747, no antibiotic, no iPod is worth the suffering that modern societies and their technologies can wreak…[But] here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view…For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all.”
Violence will always exist in some form, and it is neither comforting nor appropriate to tell a victim of violence that their suffering today is less than it would have been in the aggregate a thousand years ago. However, Pinker also argues that ignoring the long view will only promote a fatalism that retards future progress and allows nihilistic worldviews to flourish.
Returning to the Jewish world, meritless nostalgia has consequences for what we choose to improve and when. Regarding CJ, engaging in the intellectual exercise of debating TDT is far easier than the strategy and tactical leadership required to help CJ return to its peak size following World War II. And frankly, it might be impossible for CJ to return to that era of peak size, a golden era that was not as rosy as people remember.One can debate whether or not returning to that era is even possible, but ascribing too much power to TDT allows many people to debate for the sake of debating, instead of doing the real work.
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Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman, “A Responsum on the Sabbath” in Tradition and Change: The Development of Conservative Judaism, ed. Mordecai Waxman (New York: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1958). Pagination varies based on the edition.
In the 1950s, Jews in North America began to move from the city to the suburbs, which meant, among other things, that they no longer lived in areas where they could walk anywhere they wanted. The conventional wisdom is these rabbis wrote a paper that gave implicit or explicit permission for people to drive to synagogue on Shabbat rather than not drive and not go to synagogue, hence the term “driving teshuvah.” This is not what these rabbis actually did, but that is the narrative that persists to this day.
The best summary of the context, strengths, and weaknesses of this paper was written by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff in The Unfolding Tradition: Philosophies of Jewish Law. I highly encourage you to read it if you want to learn more.
No joke, there are serious scholars of Judaism and Jewish law who have repeatedly made this claim in respected publications.
See Footnote 3. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.
I could write pages on these terrible takes, but here are a few of the biggest problems:
I’m a Conservative Rabbi, and the history of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) is mostly a history of a group of rabbis writing halakhic opinions the authors know that the Jew in the pew will never follow. Thus, stating that TDT is responsible for Conservative Judaism’s destruction seventy years later ascribes power to the CJLS it never possessed.
Rank-and-file Conservative Jews were not Shomrei Shabbat when most of their synagogues were in walkable, urban areas, and they did not suddenly change their Jewish behaviors just because they moved to the suburbs. Show me a single teshuvah passed by the CJLS where a significant number of people started or stopped doing something because it was ruled by the CJLS. I’ll wait…
This is not a critique of the CJLS; I know many people on the CJLS, and who previously served on the CJLS (some of whom read this newsletter). But while the CJLS serves a valuable purpose, the CJLS has never been a body that speaks and then rank-and-file Jews follow…
Between the 1950s and early 1970s, Conservative synagogues experienced unprecedented growth. If you want to argue that a paper in 1950 ultimately led to Conservative Judaism’s destruction, you’d make a much better case that Conservative Judaism did not capitalize enough on the success of TDT, given that it was almost 50 years before Reform Judaism overtook Conservative Judaism as the largest denomination in America.
And most importantly, as we learned in this earlier post, Thing A may be followed by Thing B, but that does not mean that Thing A caused Thing B (i.e. “post hoc, ergo propter hoc”). I have yet to see any argument about TDT that provides any evidence for one’s conclusion beyond the equivalent of “one thing followed the other, therefore, it was caused by the other.” Wake me up when someone presents something beyond a weak casual link, and we may have a different conversation.
Don’t like my takes? No worries. I don’t claim that they are evidence-based. But neither are most of yours =). And this is a great excuse to watch The West Wing if you stuck with me through this rant:
Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (1918), 61.
While I do not want to make any of these posts about current politics, it’s worth noting that Spengler was also criticized on these grounds almost a hundred years ago. As such, this is not a new critique.
See Carl Dreher, “Spengler and the Third Reich,” Virginia Quarterly Review: A National Journal of Literature & Discussion (Spring 1939).
Adam Gopnik, “Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat,” The New Yorker, 12 September 2011.
Terence R. Mitchell and Leigh Thompson, “A Theory of Temporal Adjustments of the Evaluation of Events: Rosy Prospection & Rosy Retrospection,” in Advances in Managerial Cognition and Organizational Information Processing, Volume 5 (1994), 85-114.
A dear colleague and friend of mine gave me this line. He said I didn’t need to name him in this newsletter, but he should still know how much I appreciate him.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 692.
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Not that they needed my approval, but I have a theory that you cannot win Top Chef if you have tattoos that are impossible to hide, such as tattoos on the neck and above, because the winner of Top Chef is typically featured in magazines where most readers prefer not to see large numbers of tattoos.