One of the most destructive and inexcusable obstacles to sensible thinking has always been what we call the “generation gap”. Are you a member of the “What do they know? They’re only kids” brigade, or the “What do they know? They’re so old-fashioned” school of thought?
Of course, in Judaism there isn’t a generation gap. If a modern rabbi comes up with a concept, it may be discussed in terms of “But the Gluckenheim Rebbe said in New York in 1998” or “That surely wasn’t the view of Rabbi Yehudah ben Yitzhok in Spain in the eighth Century”.
The Jewish principle is, of course, that there might be technological, scientific and medical progress over the ages, but when you’re dealing with morals, ethics and standards, you’re in the land of eternal verities.
Originally, when you first gave a child a book, you also gave them honey, so that they should always associate learning with sweetness. Today it might be chocolate, but the principle is the same.
Equally, it was always the sage who should be buried in the most favoured part of the cemetery, not the rich man. Around the Willesprayer chapel in Willesden are clustered the graves of the Chief Rabbis and Dayanim.
The curse of the generation gap is that successive generations make the same mistakes over and over again. When my generation was young, we were devotees of Doctor Spock’s advice when it came to bringing up children. If our parents had suggested that Spock’s book – long before Star Trek – was incorrectly going where no man had gone before, we would have scoffed at their primitive attitudes.
It was only 20 years later Spock himself – the Dr not the Vulcan – had second thoughts and wrote that he felt he had made a number of mistakes in his original recommendations.
My mother could have told him that, but she never interfered. Why do we need to be convinced that our children are perfect? They’re not – because nobody is; except my children, of course, but they’re different. We kept quiet about the fact that, up to the age of six, only one of our older children could translate what a younger one was saying.
Today they all walk, they can all tie their shoelaces and they’re all understandable. Admittedly, they’re all over 40. Parents often take the view that discretion is the better part of keeping a good relationship with the children.
It’s only when the children get married and find themselves in the same position that the cycle begins all over again. Then all the good intentions – “I won’t make the same mistakes my parents did” – make you wonder if that sighing in the trees you hear is the sound of the laughter of your ancestors.
Each generation is equally certain that those who are older – and younger – don’t understand. There are exceptions, of course; recipes is one and turning to the older generation for advice if you’re really in trouble is another. Otherwise the adage remains true – “When I was 17, I was appalled at the ignorance of my father, and it’s amazing how much he’s learned in the last four years!”
The irony is that all good parents try to bring up their children so they can stand on their own two feet. Then, if successful, the parents complain the children won’t listen any more. The fact is, however, that as the parents won’t be around for ever, the children won’t be able to listen for ever. Except, of course, we can still hear the words and actions of our parents in our ears.
The Shema says we should teach our children diligently. Not that we should send them to good schools, first class cheders or get them additional tutoring. It says we should do the teaching. It also doesn’t provide a cut-off date when we should stop. After all, there’s no penalty for ignoring my advice. It seems to work perfectly well.
Perhaps the best example of the futility of the generation gap is illustrated by the Black Death. Bubonic plague killed millions and it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was discovered the carriers were fleas on the back of rats. Unless, of course, someone had read 1 Samuel, Chapter 6, Verse 5, which deals with the plague when it hit the Philistines. “Wherefore ye shall make images of your emerods (hemorrhoids) and images of your mice that mar the land.”
It took them 3,000 more years to come up with the same answer; the rodents that mar the land.
Now that is a generation gap.