New is Not Necessarily Better

Change is inevitable. Attitudes and social norms are constantly changing, as are career opportunities and artistic tastes. Perhaps the most perceptible arena of constant change is in the evolution of technology. Through the millennia, enormous advancements in science have revolutionized fields ranging from medicine to warfare, and innovative technological discoveries have dramatically altered normative modes of travel and communications. Each advancement introduces new products, new procedures, new ideas, and new opportunities. But never before has “new” occurred at such a frantic and feverish pace, particularly in the arena of technology.

New devices, appliances, and software are constantly being introduced. We are bombarded with advertisements and social pressures, encouraging us to upgrade every aspect of our lives. “Upgrade your cell phone, upgrade your software, upgrade your apps, upgrade your car.” We are made to feel inadequate if we don’t have the latest, the most recent, and the best of everything.

In the second paragraph of kriyas shema, we recite the words “vhaya im shamoa tishmeu,” which translates literally as, “and it will be if you listen, you will listen.” Why the double language? Rashi, quoting the Medrash, explains: “im shamoa beyashan, tishmeu bechadash. If you listen to the old, you will hear it in the new.” What does that mean?

“Old” often has a derogatory connotation. It implies outdated, antiquated, stale, tired and no longer useful. New, by contrast, implies something fresh, exciting, cutting-edge, and superior. Such perceptions dominate today’s technology-driven world, where old is obsolete and discontinued, while new is sought after by everyone (and likely already sold out). Alas, this paradigm is flawed. The new is not necessarily an upgrade. Often, the old is superior.

Perhaps Rashi is teaching that if we pay attention, and indeed hearken, to the messages, principles, ideals and teachings of the old, namely our Torah, then we will develop the sensitivity to actually hear what’s really new; we will know which of the ‘new’ is authentic, acceptable, and worthwhile.

Innovation in technology, medicine, social progress, and even application of Jewish practices all bring much opportunity and blessing. However, much of the new is simply incompatible with our existing, timeless and inviolate values, teachings, and practices. In religious life, ideas and practices that are presented as upgrades and progress are often, in fact, downgrades and regress.

As we develop a technology-induced mindset that innovation is necessarily progress, we must be careful to avoid allowing this attitude to spill over into our views of other spheres of innovation and modernization, particularly when innovation is introduced into Torah hashkafa and Jewish practice. As Torah Jews, it is our mesorah, the old and ancient wisdom passed down from parent to child, which serves as the guide and determinant of which new opportunities we are to embrace and integrate. We turn to our elders, as the guardians of the tradition, and value their guidance as the entrusted authorities to tell us which of the new is an upgrade and which of the new is actually a step backwards.

In a lecture at the Lincoln Square Synagogue on May 28, 1975, Rabbi Soloveitchik described an experience from when he was seven or eight years old living in the town of Khaslavichy and learning in Cheder with a Chabad Rebbe.

We recited, or I should say chanted mechanically, the first verses of Vayigash in a dull monotone. We were simply droning the words in Hebrew and in Yiddish. So we kept on reading mechanically:Then Judah approached him [Joseph]…. My lord has asked his servants, saying: “Have you a father, or a brother?” And we said to my lord: “We have an old father, and a young child of his old age…”Permit me to use the interpretation of the Targum Yerushalmi of the words yeled zekunim (“a young child of his old age”), namely a talented boy, a capable, talented, bright child. “We have an old father, and we also have a talented little child.”

The boy, reading mechanically, finished reciting the question: Ha-yesh lachem av? Do you have a father? and the reply: Yesh lanu av zaken ve-yeled zekunim katan, We have an old father, and a young child of his old age. Then something strange happened. The melamed (teacher), who was half-asleep while the boy was droning on the words in Hebrew and Yiddish, rose, jumped to his feet and with a strange, enigmatic gleam in his eyes, motioned to the reader to stop. Then themelamed turned to me and addressed me with the Russian word meaning “assistant to the rabbi,”podrabin. Whenever he was excited he used to address me with this title, “assistant to the rabbi.” There was a tinge of sarcasm and cynicism in his using the term, because this Chabad chassid could never forgive me for having been born into the house of Brisk which represented the elite of the opposition to Chassidism. Although I must say that I cannot accept responsibility for this fact because it was an accident of birth.

Then he said to me: “What kind of question did Joseph ask his brothers, Ha-yesh lachem av? Do you have a father? Of course they had a father, everybody has a father! The only person who had no father was the first man of creation, Adam. But anyone who is born into this world has a father. What kind of a question was it?”

I began, “Joseph . . .” I tried to answer, but he did not let me. Joseph, I finally said, meant to find out whether the father was still alive. “Do you still have a father,” meaning, is he alive, not dead?

If so, the melamed thundered back at me, he should have phrased the question differently: “Is your father still alive?”

To argue with the melamed was useless. He began to speak. He was no longer addressing the boys. The impression he gave was that he was speaking to some mysterious visitor, a guest who had come into the cheder, into that cold room. And he kept on talking. Joseph did not intend to ask his brothers about avot d’isgalyim. I later discovered that this was a Chabad term for parenthood which is open, visible. He was asking them about avot d’iscasin, about the mysterious parenthood, the hidden and invisible parenthood. In modern idiom, I would say he meant to express the idea that Joseph was inquiring about existential parenthood, not biological parenthood. Joseph, the melamed concluded, was anxious to know whether they felt themselves committed to their roots, to their origins. Were they origin conscious? Are you, Joseph asked the brothers, rooted in your father? Do you look upon him the way the branches, or the blossoms, look upon the roots of the tree? Do you look upon your father as the feeder, as the foundation of your existence? Do you look upon him as the provider and sustainer of your existence? Or are you a band of rootless shepherds who forget their origin, and travel and wander from place to place, from pasture to pasture?

Suddenly, he stopped addressing the strange visitor and began to talk to us. Raising his voice, he asked: “Are you modest and humble? Do you admit that the old father represents an old tradition?

“Do you believe that the father is capable of telling you something new, something exciting? Something challenging? Something you did not know before? Or are you insolent, arrogant, and vain, and deny your dependence upon your father, upon your source?”

“Ha-yesh lachem av?! Do you have a father?!” exclaimed the melamed, pointing at my study-mate. I had a study-mate who was considered a child prodigy in the town. He was the prodigy and I had the reputation of being slow. His name was Isaac. The melamed turned to him and said: “Who knows more? Do you know more because you are well versed in the Talmud, or does your father, Jacob the blacksmith, know more even though he can barely read Hebrew? Are you proud of your father? If a Jew admits to the supremacy of his father, then, ipso facto, he admits to the supremacy of the Universal Father, the ancient Creator of the world who is called Atik Yomim (‘He of Ancient Days’).”

That is the experience I had with the melamed. I have never forgotten it.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.