Get yourself a teacher, part 2

Eli: OK—“Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set.” I get your point, but I don’t see how it’s so radical. I mean, how is what you’re saying any different from the typical old guard defense of the status quo? You’re quoting the Bible and this old rabbi from 2000 years ago, but you end up in the same place as the Republican Party circa 1960. What’s the difference?

RR: Well, for one thing, the ancient boundary I’m talking about is not mid-century middle-class America, but the timeless truths of Scripture. I’m not trying to defend the status quo, because lots of times it’s Scripture that fuels the charge against the status quo when it’s unjust.

Eli: Except when it’s too busy defending the status quo to be bothered with justice. . . Look, I don’t know if I believe this exactly, but I’ll try it on for size: Maybe the past couple of generations have finally discovered a truth that was there all along, namely, that we can’t learn that much from those who’ve gone before us, but have to find out for ourselves. Past generations managed to suppress this truth and get the young to line up behind the old, but the rate of change in the 20th century was just too much and they couldn’t keep up that ruse any longer. It became obvious that it wasn’t going to work—and really wasn’t supposed to work.

The only hope for the future lies with the young who can break out of the narrow old biases and power structures and come up with new ways of doing things, before they get middle-aged and compromised. What was it that Thoreau said about the old forgetting as much as they’ve learned? Actually, I looked it up in Walden, chapter one:

Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.… Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures…. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.

And then he says, “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels,” and that’s a good thing—as our generation has finally discovered.

RR: Well, since you say you’re just trying that idea on for size, I’ll refrain from much comment on Thoreau, except to say that if you think I’m trying to get back to 1960, he’s already there in spades.

But let me try on something else for size myself, sort of the exact opposite. Maybe the quest for new ways of doing things is itself the problem. Who said you need to find something new in every generation? You claimed that my argument about finding yourself a teacher and not moving the ancient boundaries isn’t so radical because it’s already been said. But who says we have to say something new or that the new is somehow better? I say we’re addicted to newness for its own sake and that’s our real problem. Solomon’s words, “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Qohelet 1:9), must be in the Bible for a reason. If you’re constantly seeking something new, when in reality there is nothing new under the sun, you set yourself up for craziness.

Look at what happened in the realm of art, for instance, although I’m not really qualified to say much about it. These experimental styles rose up in the 19th century, like impressionism and all the rest, and at first they were great—fresh, new insights into what art could express and how it could express it. But pretty soon the styles and movements began to multiply so fast that you couldn’t keep up with them, and lots of them were just about being new and different, and strange, of course, instead of saying anything profound or beautiful. I mean a lot of contemporary art is heady and superficial and irrelevant to anyone outside the small artist community.

Eli: How did we get on to art? I thought you were talking about spiritual values or something like that.

RR: Right, and about the newness addiction that undermines spiritual values. So, Thoreau thinks that his experience is so new and untried that his mentors will have nothing to say about it. But of course that puts his personal experience and his personal appraisal of that experience above everything else, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with contemporary culture. Thoreau went off to the seclusion of Walden Pond, but today his ideas fit in just fine at Walmart. His exaltation of newness for each generation feeds right into the rootless consumerism that surrounds us. (Of course, to be fair to Henry, I must add that his call to simplicity would put Walmart out of business, but that’s another blog.)

So, I was just trying on the idea that the quest for newness is itself the problem, but now I think the idea is a good fit. The biblical remedy is that we’re not to move the ancient boundaries, but to learn from past generations.

Eli: So we go back to racism, slavery, suppression of women? How about past attitudes toward Jews? I’m not looking for newness for its own sake, but as a way to overcome the errors of the past, and I still don’t see how your approach allows for that.

RR: I’ll say it again, the ancient boundary is not America in the Eisenhower years. It’s the Kingdom of Heaven, which confronts the kingdoms of this world in every generation. Yeshua himself is our example for maintaining, or really restoring, the ancient boundaries, even if they threaten the status quo, and even if they might appear new and radical.

What I’m saying is that the individual and his experience aren’t the plumb line, Scripture is. And those who’ve gone before us learning and living out the message of Scripture can help us connect with it. The new thing that each generation has to do is to apply this timeless truth to what’s going on right now. But you’ve got to get hold of that truth first, and for that a mentor is essential. I’ll end with a passage from Scripture, like I did last time: “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new as well as old” (Matt. 13:52).

 Eli: Nice ending—you must be a preacher!

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6 thoughts on “Get yourself a teacher, part 2”

  1. Thank you for the post Rabbi Russ!

    I have found my generation criticized for not pushing the envelope enough, for sticking with the status quo.

    The truth is that many of us are being told what is good about each of us individually, what’s wrong with us corporately, and then others wonder why we’re so individualistic.

    Thank you for breaking that trend and presenting the paradigm challenges as they are, instead of placing blame. May voices like yours encourage us to rise to the occasion and be a generation entrusted with the task of stewarding Olam Haba within Olam Hazeh. Thank you for all you are doing, all you and your generation have done, and all you will continue to do!

    1. Wow, Benjamin, that’s a great insight: “many of us are being told what is good about each of us individually, what’s wrong with us corporately, and then others wonder why we’re so individualistic.” I sure don’t want to add my voice to those pointing out what’s wrong with your generation corporately. I do value your vitality and fresh perspective, which benefit the whole community. Your generation is less wrapped up in the various divisions and tensions that tend to preoccupy my generation (although I’m not sure you’re doing much better in avoiding the generational “us and them” than we did), and therefore holds much promise for unity and expansive vision in the years to come.

      My main point was to counter the glorification of newness which is so prevalent in our culture that it blocks any kind of healthy inter-generational partnership (Monique’s word from her comment on my blog). It’s not just a matter of what younger folk might learn from the more experienced, it’s the discipline of learning itself, setting aside self long enough to learn something new. The wider culture tells all of us that we already have the answers and just need to be true to our inner self. An older wisdom teaches us to set aside self in order to learn, just as an athlete has to gain the discipline of suppressing bodily complaints and limitations to reach top performance. Learning from mentors is essential to spiritual formation.

  2. Rabbi Russ,

    On the theme of inter-generational partnership, as a rule, I tend to enjoy the company of “old folks” who spent their youth breaking molds.

    That includes women who pushed forward in their careers despite widespread derision, travelers who connected deeply with minority groups when the patronizing gaze of pity was in vogue, and the authentic hippies who put their money where their mouths were and lived off the land (ahem).

    I don’t find much inspiration from relationships with “old folks” who conformed, abstained, and suppressed themselves so thoroughly in their early years that they’ve drifted aimlessly into a mid-life that’s obsessively concerned with comfort and consumption, or a suburban spiritually characterized by niceties and thoughtlessness.

    I think those who take big risks in their 20s make for more interesting people in their 50s and 60s. The fruit of all that risk taking is having more wisdom to share.

    Do you think that’s true?

    1. Well, as a guy who took insane risks in his 20s, which didn’t always work out, I’ll accept being more interesting now as compensation!

      I’d agree that the fruit of risk-taking can be wisdom, if the person learns from the risks and their outcomes and keeps a positive perspective on both. I know some former risk-takers who’ve rejected–or, more commonly, forgotten–that whole part of their lives and cut themselves off from some essential lessons.

      I do think you’re right to affirm the idealism and daring of the young, which should be an essential part of inter-generational partnership. Thanks for providing some excellent balance to my blog.

  3. Rabbi Russ,

    Thank you for the reply. I most totally agree with your take on the “glorification of newness,” especially in terms of how it relates to intergenerational interaction. I’ve heard plenty of new ideas from folks with shoes older than I am, and I’ve been known to talk about some “new” idea I’ve had only to discover someone else said it 200 years ago, and much more eloquently than myself 🙂

    The discipline of learning is so important, and one that I am very grateful to be developing and participating in.
    I guess what Yeshua said is true about bringing out treasures old and new. The cool thing is that older generations bring lots of “new” and younger generations can rediscover alot of usable “old”! I’m excited to keep learning both the old and new from those who paved many of the roads we can all now travel. Thank you

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