In spite of the unpopularity of the whole concept of reaction, there are always many people who look back to the “good old days” with a certain nostalgia, if not with a strong desire to actually revert to what they see as a better state of affairs. Amongst modern Jews, the preferred period seems to be located about 2009 years ago, when, it is conceded, Jewish life had an authentic style and vitality, and was vastly richer in content.
But is it possible to go back to any period in the past? Is not the very idea of a return self-destructive in its direction?
For there is something destructive in this kind of endeavor. Even when it is confined to a sentiment. it contains a wish to do away with the elements that exist, and that may have come into existence as a result of the very aspects of the much-admired past. This elimination of the new is, of course, never flatly stated. It is only implied. Because even the most conservative and reactionary longing will not wish to uproot everything. The intended change is generally confined to making life conform to a certain ideal pattern or spirit of things. And here is the cause of the error: The naןve wish to alter only one or two aspects of a world is utterly unrealistic. All the parts of a historic reality are so closely intertwined and bound together, that it is almost impossible to tamper with any intrinsic section without seriously upsetting the whole.
Those who have a powerful urge to revert to an old order of things are not usually prepared to engage in a hopeless conflict with the whole world. All they want is to be left alone, to create a kind of social island, or a ghetto, where life can presumably disregard the undesirable innovations of the present. But such an attempt, no matter how courageously undertaken, can hardly withstand the pressures of historic reality for long.
And not only is such a return unfeasible from a practical point of view: it is theoretically very questionable. For every genuine social, educational or cultural expression must have a definite starting point in a historical framework from which it develops and flourishes. So too the return to the past. Whether as a yearning or as a program of action, it has to have a foothold in the present, in some part of a contemporary reality. This is a contradiction that is hard to overcome.
Undeniably, the answer is not in any variety of negation of the past. Human societies seem to grow best when they are well rooted in some sort of tradition and history. And in the Jewish tradition, it is not only permissible to strive for new heights, to strive to supersede the past, it may even be considered a duty to do so. As it is written in the Torah: “And He will make you better and more than your fathers” (Deuteronomy 30:5).