Easing the Donkey's Burden: Nitkatnu Hadorot or Nitgadlu?
By Rabbi Simcha Feuerman
“If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like humans. But if they were like humans, then we are like donkeys.” (Talmud Shabbat 112b)
One of the basic and fundamental tenets of our tradition is respect and deference for the previous generations. Although there are notable exceptions, generally, rabbinic authorities do not override or disagree with the rulings of authorities from a previous class, such as Amoraim disagreeing with Tanaim, Gaonim with Amoraim, Rishonim with Acharonim and so on. While this may be due largely to conceding that their knowledge of, and access to Torah Sheb'al Peh is more accurate, there is also an aspect of deference and respect for those who are considered to be of higher moral and spiritual character. 
This principle has a subtle but pervasive impact on the chinuch we give our children; it is not uncommon for rebbes and rabbanim to speak of “Nitkatnu Hadoros – The generations have become diminished” as a reason to explain how we are unable to fulfill a particular spiritual, moral or halachic ideal. For example, while it is virtually unheard of to fast for more than 25 hours today, there were minhagim to fast for two days consecutively – on the 9th of Av and the 10th of Av, as well as those who were able to make vows of abstention for penitence. Apparently, we consider ourselves too morally and physically weak to live up to this standard. Likewise, based on the accounts of many individuals from the previous generations, it was not uncommon for persons to spend the entire Yom Kippur night standing and reciting Psalms, and THEN praying the full day. This seems beyond reach for most of us today. When contemplating this, most people wearily sigh, “Oy, the doiros get more shvach (weak).” These are but two examples of many instances where the deterioration of subsequent generations is an accepted fact of life in our tradition and our culture.
Is this principle absolutely true in all areas? Is each successive generation truly less spiritual and less moral than the previous ones? Are we riding a one-way train down to the depths of oblivion waiting to be rescued by the arrival of Messiah? This resonates with the midrashic tradition about our ancestors in Egypt, who would have descended past all forty-nine levels of impurity had they not been rescued. While such a belief seems to be well-supported by everything we have studied so far, there is a basic illogic to this position. What is the spiritual purpose in the divine plan for sustaining us, if indeed each generation is less worthy? Why not just throw in the metaphysical towel and bring Mashiach now, while we are still partially ahead of the game?
The answer must be, as was undoubtedly true in regard to our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt, that despite our continuous moral deterioration, our experiences must be preparing us and priming us for an ultimate experience of higher spirituality and achievement. Presumably, the experience as slaves in Egypt somehow was a necessary preparation for acceptance and fulfillment of the Torah. Indeed, many commandments in the Torah, ranging from Shabbat to the laws of usury, are supplemented with a reminder that we are obligated to follow them “Because I am your G-d who took you out of Egypt.” Furthermore, in regard to the capacity of empathy and caring for the plight of the downtrodden, the Torah reminds us “And you know the soul of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” If the experience of slavery in Egypt helped elevate and prime our ancestors for the accepting of the Torah, it may likewise be a fair assumption that while each generation may be undergoing spiritual and moral deterioration, there also is some new quality that is being developed. Perhaps this quality is not fully expressed and lays dormant until the time of redemption, or perhaps its quality is available and accessible to all of us right now.
In this essay, I will suggest one specific area where each generation improves its ability and depth to comprehend and fulfill the Torah, as well as the practical implications for the chinuch of our children. According to fascinating research and statistics regarding I.Q. scores, the ability to perform abstract reasoning increases significantly with every generation. This has a distinct impact on the ability to understand the more esoteric parts of the Torah, such as the reasons for the mitzvot, ways of understanding reward and punishment, as well as the mystical aspects of religious activities. The Talmud tells us that “Three things expand a person’s consciousness: A pleasant home, a pleasant wife and beautiful utensils”, and it is quite possible that the relative wealth and security of modern life allows for each generation to improve its capacity to understand abstractions, because our surroundings are more pleasant and engender sensitivity and perception. As we shall see, the Sages of the Talmud did not believe the average not-so-learned Jew to be capable of grasping and comprehending many of the deeper aspects of the Torah. There are numerous examples of this, and we shall study a few of them found in the Talmud and Medieval authorities.
The Truth about the Scrolls
The Talmud tells us that one of the early rabbinic decrees was a form of impurity applying to holy scrolls. While it seems rather strange to declare holy scrolls to be impure, the rabbis had good reason to do so. According to the Talmud, the common folk developed an ill-advised habit of storing food consecrated as Terumah in the same areas where they stored the holy scrolls. The people reasoned, “The Terumah is holy and the scrolls are holy so why not store them together?” The problem with this practice is that the rodents would come to eat the Terumah and inevitably also chew on the scrolls. Therefore, the rabbis brilliantly declared that the scrolls are always impure, greatly discouraging people from storing them near the Terumah, which was required to be ritually pure.
This clever bit of social engineering begs one basic question: If the people were compliant and agreeable to following rabbinic rules and injunctions, why did the rabbis have to complicate matters by decreeing that the scrolls were impure, and of all things, have the audacity to suggest that holy scrolls are impure? Would it not have been simpler to merely forbid storing holy scrolls alongside Terumah? This suggests that actually the rabbis could not easily or completely secure compliance via this route and therefore could not directly forbid the co-placement of Terumah and scrolls. Instead, they needed to tap into an apparent cultural taboo and respect for the laws of Terumah purity as a way to mobilize the people to comply and refrain from storing scrolls next to the Terumah. In other words, to simply tell people that rodents will chew on the scrolls and therefore it is forbidden to store Terumah next to them would not have been as effective as creating a new form of impurity. By creating a rabbinic decree of impurity, the rabbis were able to tap into a deeply ingrained respect for the laws of purity and fear of violating them. This was apparently the most effective deterrent.
Another possible instance where the Sages used the taboo of impurity to shape behavior is in regard to the rabbinic mitzvah of washing hands before eating bread. The stated reason for this law seems highly convoluted and begs for a deeper explanation. The reason supplied is that since, when the Temple is rebuilt and the Cohanim will eat Terumah they will need to wash their hands before eating, the rabbis wanted to accustom everyone to wash. This reason is a quite a stretch, because the original ruling itself that required the Cohanim to wash was only based on another rabbinic declaration that hands are automatically considered ritually unclean. So, in effect you have a rabbinic injunction to safeguard a rabbinic injunction, in effect a double safeguard, which is usually not the modus operandi of the sages. Furthermore, let us study the original reason for declaring unwashed hands as impure in regard to Terumah bread. The Talmud tells us it is because one’s hands absentmindedly touch many objects. The rabbis therefore enacted a strange form of impurity declaring only the hands and no other part of the body impure, and then allowing a special ritual of water poured from a vessel to act as a mikvah for the purpose of removing the impurity. This is in itself quite remarkable, because indeed had a person's hand absentmindedly touched an impure object such as dead rodent as the stated reason fears, the entire person's body would be rendered impure and he would need to immerse himself in the mikvah. Washing his hands from a vessel would accomplish nothing. So, what problem if anything, did the rabbis solve?
In fact, Rashi (Ad loc.) finds this explanation so implausible that he suggests another explanation, admittedly overriding what his rabbis taught. Rashi proposes that the requirement to wash before eating Terumah was enacted in order to ensure that the person eats clean hands out of respect for the holy food. If so, it is not implausible that the rabbis ultimately extended this requirement to all bread in order to encourage sanitary eating habits. In any case, it is clear that according to Rashi, the rabbis once again used the taboo of impurity to shape social behavior, at least to show deference for Terumah by eating with clean hands, and possibly to eat with general cleanliness.
This deeply ingrained fear and respect for the laws of ritual impurity and regard for the sanctity of Terumah bread cannot be underestimated. So much so, that according to some interpretations of the Mishna Nedarim, even a thug and a murderer will still be “pious” and careful to make sure he does not defile Terumah. The Mishna states that if one is accosted by bandits, he may make a false oath declaring his produce as Terumah, so bandits and/or self-appointed tax collectors will leave him alone. Incredibly, this implies that a bandit, who has no qualms robbing and murdering, will not want to transgress the boundary of defiling Terumah. This brings new meaning to the concept of honor among thieves!
These were not the only instances where the rabbis tapped into the taboo against impurity as a way to shape society. The Sages were quite concerned about Jewish children being exposed to inappropriate sexual contact during playtime with their gentile neighbors. They therefore decreed that gentile children be considered to have the impurity of a zav (a certain disease that was considered to cause a high degree of impurity, see Leviticus ch. 15) so that the Jewish children would not play with the gentile children. This decree was enacted to protect them from being subjected to improper contact. One would think it would have been more effective to just educate and warn parents about the dangers of inappropriate sexual contact and/or abuse, as we attempt to do nowadays. Apparently, the rabbis who enacted this decree felt the standards of tznius would be violated if they stated their concerns directly, and/or their warnings would go unheeded because the average parent considered such acts unthinkable. They therefore resorted to the fear of impurity as a way to influence parental behavior and protect the children, taking care of safety concerns without violating tznius or overwhelming people with information beyond their ability to emotionally process."
We see from the above examples that the rabbis had no qualms about withholding information and influencing people via their taboos, so long as it was for a worthy cause. Apparently, at least in regard to the examples of the scrolls and molestation prevention, the rabbis did not have enough faith in the average person's ability to grasp or handle the entire truth. One wonders if this is an approach that would work well nowadays. It does not seem likely. As members of a democratic and open society, people expect and demand transparency from their leaders. While these may or may not be Torah values, they are expectations that are accepted as our rights. Furthermore, as we shall see later in this essay, the research shows that in modern times the average person is indeed more capable of understanding and grasping nuances than in previous generations. 
As If They Are Children
In his introduction to Perek Chelek, Maimonides tells us that the pleasures of the soul are as inconceivable to us as color is to person who is blind from birth. The ultimate reason for doing mitzvot should not be about reward or punishment, rather one’s focus should be on wanting to become attached to G-d by performing his will. In the World to Come, the soul will experience great ecstasy to whatever degree it can attain attachment to G-d, and the greatest possible punishment is that of karet, which is the soul's disconnection from G-d. Maimonides tells us, despite the value and importance of this lofty concept, the Torah exhorts people in terms of reward and punishment as a concession to the limits of human understanding and motivation. Few people would be motivated by the abstract notion of connection or disconnection to G-d. Instead, for most people, the expectation of concrete reward and punishment is necessary to propel people in the direction of spiritual growth. In time, as the person ascends to greater heights, he may be become capable of fulfilling the commandments completely lishmah, as is prescribed by Antignos Ish Socho in Pirke Avot. Maimonides explains that this is no different than a parent or teacher who motivates a young child to study by offering him sweets, and then as he gets older, offers even more significant prizes. Only when the child is a full adult will he realize the value of what he is studying, and will he no longer require material rewards and prizes.
But, again one must wonder, is it true that people today would be insufficiently motivated by a vision of spiritual ecstasy and attachment to G-d? The thousands of Jews and non-Jews who flock to gurus, ashrams, so-called “Kabbalah” Centers and other similar places seem to indicate this is not quite true. In fact, perhaps to the modern man, the idea of heavenly reward and punishment may seem juvenile and much less of a motivator than the notion of performing good and moral deeds for their own sake. Furthermore, although in the intimacy of my counseling practice as a psychotherapist, I indeed have encountered a fair share of clients who express nihilistic sentiments and profess atheism or agnosticism, I also have been deeply moved by persons of high moral character who profess a firm conviction that there is no G-d, nor any afterlife whatsoever. I have seen such persons withstand remarkable moral tests. Are they deluding themselves and actually, deep down, fear a final accounting in the Afterlife, or are they truly capable of being moral for its own sake? Has modern Man expanded his capacity for spirituality, and if so, in what way?
Midrash and Aggadot
Midrash have been explained and interpreted throughout the ages in accordance with various Jewish exegetical and philosophical approaches. Medieval commentaries throughout the ages have instructed us to understand midrashic stories as allegorical in nature, hinting at lofty concepts such as mystical and kabbalistic teachings which the rabbis were reluctant to state explicitly.
In his introduction to his commentary on the Mishna, Maimonides states that the aggadot were taught to a general audience, which included children and those who were not scholars. He therefore explains:
"One cannot teach the general public except by means of parable and riddle so as to include...the youth, in order that when their intellect reach a more complete level, they will understand the meaning of the parables."
The proper and meaningful study of midrash is in general a vastly unexplored area of learning for most Jews, even those who spend many hours a day studying Torah in depth. Unfortunately, aggadot are often relegated to the status of Jewish tales told to entertain children without enough thought being given to their deep meanings.
Are children today truly incapable of understanding the deeper meanings of these midrashim? Personally, I recall studying a midrash with a nine year-old boy which stated that the Torah was primordially written with “Black fire on top of white fire.” When I asked him what he thought it meant, he told me “The black is the Yetzer Hara, and the white is the Yetzer Hatov. The Torah needs both in order to be complete.”
Admittedly, this was a particularly precocious young man who had a track record of ingenious insights. Nevertheless, it is worth considering that children today are quite capable of seeing deeper meanings in aggadot when challenged to do so. All we need to do is keep an open mind and ask them what they think. Here is one example of how this can be done with a famous midrash taught to all children.
The Sun and the Moon
“In the beginning of the creation of the world, G-d made the Sun and the Moon to be the same size and equally bright. After they were created, the Moon approached G-d and said to him, "It does not make sense that two rulers should wear the same crown." G-d answered, "Okay, then you be the one who is shrunken to a smaller size and the Sun shall rule!" The Moon then replied, "Because I said one smart thing you punish me so severely?" G-d answered the Moon, "I'll tell you what. Go, and you shall rule over day and night." The Moon then replied, "What purpose is there in my ruling over the day, when there is plenty of light and no one needs my light?" G-d replied, "Go, and through you the Jewish people will measure the days and the years, and thereby establish the dates of the holy days. After some additional give and take, G-d saw that the Moon still was not satisfied, and in response he made following request of the Jewish people: "On every Rosh Chodesh bring a sacrifice on my behalf in order that I obtain forgiveness for having reduced the light of the Moon."”
If encouraged to do so, even young students will have no problem finding the obvious lessons in the story, such as how the Moon's greed and grandiosity did not pay in the end. But what about the other ideas in the story? What can the students make of this give and take between the Moon and G-d? Not only does the Moon gain concessions, in the end, G-d even asks the Jewish people to seek forgiveness on his behalf!
The Maharsha (Ad loc.) interprets this dialogue to be about the Jewish people. In order for them to achieve their spiritual goals they must undergo great suffering in this world. Ultimately, they will reap the reward in the world to come. Nevertheless, the fact that the Jewish people must suffer so much in exile is, so to speak, painful to G-d, and he therefore tries to console the Jewish people. First, by giving them the Jewish Festivals, but ultimately by reminding them that just as the Moon waxes and wanes through its cycles, so too the Jewish people will have moments in history when they are powerful and others when they are weak.
Given some chance to discuss this, children can easily be led to see these deeper meanings. It also gives the teacher an opportunity to discuss the ways in which the Torah presents G-d with human emotions. Though G-d is not subject to emotional whims, he chooses to reveal himself in such a manner so humans can relate to him. Within that light, from this story we see a willingness by G-d to enter into a dialogue with the sinner, to make accommodations, adjustments, and surprisingly, even to regret the harshness of the punishment he enacted. From this story, any chutzpadik and misbehaving child could surely draw comfort.
Surely, with the right kind of instruction, this kind of analysis and understanding is well within the range of even many first graders. We have a great opportunity to combine intellectual analysis with an emotional component to inspire internalization and practice of Torah values. Yet previous generations seem to have preferred keeping this treasure trove of information in the form of a child’s tale. It seems to me that our generation of children have an increased capacity for deeper reasoning and understanding and should be encouraged to look at these stories in a more symbolic light. My experience talking to children today shows me that they are capable of great depth, analysis and interpretation. Let us see why this might be true, and what has changed in recent history.
The I.Q.'s Keep Rising
One striking area where each successive generation is superior to the next is in regard to I.Q. Test scores.
"In 1981, New Zealand-based psychologist James Flynn...Comparing raw I.Q. scores over nearly a century... saw that they kept going up: every few years, the new batch of I.Q. test takers seemed to be smarter than the old batch. Twelve-year-olds in the 1980s performed better than twelve-year-olds in the 1970s, who performed better than twelve-year-olds in the 1960s, and so on. This trend wasn't limited to a certain region or culture, and the differences were not trivial. On average, I.Q. test takers improved over their predecessors by three points every ten years - a staggering difference of eighteen points over two generations.
The differences were so extreme, they were hard to wrap one's head around. Using a late-twentieth-century average score of 100, the comparative score for the year 1900 was calculated to be about 60 - leading to the truly absurd conclusion, acknowledged Flynn, 'that a majority of our ancestors were mentally retarded.' The so-called Flynn effect raised eyebrows throughout the world of cognitive research. Obviously, the human race had not evolved into a markedly smarter species in less than one hundred years. Something else was going on.
For Flynn, the pivotal clue came in his discovery that the increases were not uniform across all areas but were concentrated in certain subtests. Contemporary kids did not do any better than their ancestors when it came to general knowledge or mathematics. But in the area of abstract reasoning, reported Flynn, there were 'huge and embarrassing' improvements. The further back in time he looked, the less test takers seemed comfortable with hypotheticals and intuitive problem solving. Why? Because a century ago, in a less complicated world, there was very little familiarity with what we now consider basic abstract concepts. '[The intelligence of] our ancestors in 1900 was anchored in everyday reality,' explains Flynn. 'We differ from them in that we can use abstractions and logic and the hypothetical ... Since 1950, we have become more ingenious in going beyond previously learned rules to solve problems on the spot.'
Examples of abstract notions that simply didn't exist in the minds of our nineteenth-century ancestors include...the concepts of control groups (1875) and random samples (1877). A century ago, the scientific method itself was foreign to most Americans. The general public had simply not yet been conditioned to think abstractly.
The catalyst for the dramatic I.Q. improvements, in other words, was not some mysterious genetic mutation or magical nutritional supplement but what Flynn described as 'the [cultural] transition from pre-scientific to post- scientific operational thinking.' Over the course of the twentieth century, basic principles of science slowly filtered into public consciousness, transforming the world we live in. That transition, says Flynn, 'represents nothing less than a liberation of the human mind.'
The scientific world-view, with its vocabulary, taxonomies, and detachment of logic and the hypothetical from concrete referents, has begun to permeate the minds of post-industrial people. This has paved the way for mass education on the university level and the emergence of an intellectual cadre without whom our present civilization would be inconceivable.
Perhaps the most striking of Flynn's observations is this: 98 percent of IQ test takers today score better than the average test taker in 1900. The implications of this realization are extraordinary. It means that in just one century, improvements in our social discourse and our schools have dramatically raised the measurable intelligence of almost everyone.”
According to these findings, our generation has the highest capacity for abstract reasoning and analysis than ever before. Young children today who spend a great deal of time on computers, are even more used to hypothetical thought, layers of representation of symbolism, nuances and multiple perspectives than almost every computer game employs. In fact, the actual use of a computer itself engenders recognition of symbolic content because the entire graphical interface is representation of acts rather than actual physical acts. Opening “windows”, switching from one program to another, multi-tasking, becoming exposed to world events as they unfold in real time via newsfeeds, and playing role playing games can all lead to expanded consciousness and awareness. True, these same technologies can also lead children to be highly distractibility and crave constant stimulation, but let us focus on this generation’s gifts and strengths instead of bemoaning their shortcomings.
This is not the first time in Jewish history where a successor generation was superior in one aspect over a previous generation. The Talmud records a remark of Rav Papa to Abaye, who ponders why miracles happened to the earlier generations and not nowadays. Rav Papa states that it cannot be due to lack of Torah knowledge, as he declares their knowledge to be superior.
I am not an educator by profession, so the definitive implications of these findings for the chinuch of our children require more extensive thought and discussion. However, some areas that we might consider are :
- Increased focus on symbolic meaning, philosophy and the deeper aspects of the Torah. Our children are indeed capable of understanding the Torah on a very deep level and we should not make the mistake of selling them short. It is possible to engage them in actively interpreting and delving into a study of reasons for the mitzvot. Maimonides encourages people to do, regardless of whether the mitzvah is a chok (law without an obvious reason) or a mishpat (law based on apparent logic.) Maimonides states, “Though all the laws of the Torah are decrees [and not subject to debate]...it is fitting to contemplate them and, to whatever extent possible, try to find reasons for them." One should pause to ask why Maimonides considers it important to find reasons for the laws of the Torah if they must be followed regardless of whether they seem logical or not? Presumably the answer is that when one makes an effort to understand the laws, it helps guide a person to think in consonance with the morals and ethics of the Torah, thereby increasing the development of character. With proper guidance and encouragement, our children can excel in this area.
- Likewise, in regard to the study of aggadot, we could help the children reach for the deep lessons and interpretations of these allegories, to strengthen their belief and respect for the insights found in our tradition.
- Every now and then, someone bemoans the fact that in prior generations, the yeshivot covered far more ground and mastered hundreds of blatt, instead of merely focusing on a few blatt per year, studied in great depth. While this criticism is valid and important, perhaps we also should embrace this situation in recognition that the yeshivot might be indulging in a great deal of analysis for one simple reason – the students are good at it. As a generation, more individuals are capable of this deeper learning than ever before. Thus, the desire to do so is understandable, and may need to be given more recognition. True, the knowledge of basics needs to be encouraged as well, but this can be tempered with a special appreciation that more and more young people have a thirst to study and analyze in greater depth and the drive should not be excessively stunted. As the Talmud says, “A person should always study in the direction that his heart desires.”
- It is well and good to teach our children humility and historical perspective but care might be taken not to overdo and engender an attitude of pessimism and defeatism. They certainly should understand the brilliance, dedication and awesome spiritual and moral character possessed by sages of previous generations. Nevertheless, no one wants to be on a losing team, so if we want children to stay loyal to Jewish tradition and practices, they ought to feel like winners. We can also convey a message of confidence and belief in their ability as Jews and spiritual beings to make new and important contributions, as opposed to being mere paving bricks, biding time on the road to the Messiah. Showing them their unique strengths and intellectual abilities is one way to do that.
As they mature in life, our children will be exposed to science and philosophy in various degrees. Some may learn complex ideas as a result of the professions they choose such as medicine, psychology, sociology or other science-based courses of study, or may just read about these ideas on their own due to the readily available and popular works. Today, your average person can go to a book store and purchase titles such as Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, which makes physics and astronomy understandable to the common man. Do we want to run the risk of our children having a grade-school understanding of the Torah, and then as they grow up and learn about the world, find secular ideas to be more sophisticated and exciting? While indeed, in some respects, our generation is at a spiritual and moral low point, embarrassingly insignificant compared to the giants of years past, we do not have to wallow in self-pity. Rather, we have an opportunity to modify our curriculum and include deeper and more profound aspects of the Torah, allowing our children to become stimulated as they capitalize on their ever increasing capacity to comprehend what previous generation considered secret, esoteric and beyond the reach of but a few.
Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R is psychotherapist in private practice specializing in high conflict couples and families. He serves as Director of Operations for OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, and as President of Nefesh International. Simchafeuerman@gmail.com
 Menachem Kellner in Maimonides on the Decline of the Generations (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996) suggests that according to Maimonides the previous generations of rabbis have superiority on the basis of their access to a less distorted masorah, but not due to an inherent supernatural superiority.
 See Eruvin 53a which suggests that the deterioration in Torah knowledge of successive generations as due to many factors including lack of spiritual breadth and lack of studiousness.
 Ba'er Heytev, Shulchan Aruch, O.H. 558:3
 Shulchan Aruch, O.H. 563:4
 Zohar Chadash, on Parashas Yitro, by the first verse of the Aseret Hadibrot, 20:1.
 Leviticus 25:35-38
 See Exodus 23:9 and Leviticus 19:33
 Berachot 57b, see also Maimonides, Shemoneh Perakim, ch. 5, where he elaborates on this concept.
 Shabbat 14a
 Chulin 106a
 Beitzah 3a, see Mesoras Hashas ad loc. for further references
 Shabbat 14a
 See Mishna Berurah 158:1 which offers both reasons, that of habituation in ritual purity for Terumah, and also physical cleanliness as an aspect or representation of spiritual purity.
 Nedarim 3:4, see Bartenura ad loc.
 Shabbat 17b
 See R. Eliezer Lippmann’ Neusatz’ Mei Menuhot, published in 1884. Here is a quote from Dr. Marc Shapiro’s discussion on the Seforim Blog (here)
“On p. 16a, after citing Maimonides’ words that the majority err in understanding aggadot literally, Neusatz comments that this was the situation in earlier times, which were less religiously sophisticated than later generations. The proof that the earlier generations were religiously naïve is that belief in divine corporeality was widespread then. According to Neusatz, people who were so mistaken about God that they imagined him as a corporeal being would obviously not be able to understand Aggadah in a non-literal fashion. He contrasts that with the generation he lived in, which was able to properly understand Aggadah.
אמנם בדורנו זה נזדככו יותר הרעיונות ונלטשו הלבבות והמושגים האלהיים הנשגבים האלה מצטיירים בלבות המאמינים בטוהר יותר ורוב זוהר, ונתמעטו אנשי הכת הזאת, ותה"ל רובם יודעים שחז"ל כתבו אגדותיהם ע"ד משל ומליצה וחדות וכפי הצורך אשר היה להם לפי ענין הדורות אשר היה לפניהם, פנימיותם הם ענינים אמתיים נשגבים עומדים ברומו של עולם.”
 Also see Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvha chapters. 8 and 10 where he elaborates on this theme
 Avot 1:3
 It is important to point out that though this is superficially similar to Maimonides’ position, and certainly relatively admirable, being moral for its own sake with no belief in the ultimate goal of connection to G-d is problematic. According to Maimonides, doing a mitzvah lishmah – for its own sake, does not mean without connection to G-d. It just means without a need or desire for reward as a motivator. In fact, in Hilchot Melachim (8:11), Maimonides definitively states that a Gentile who fulfills the seven Noachide Laws out of logic and morality alone without doing them with the intent to fulfill the Creator’s mitzvot, will not merit reward in the World to Come among the righteous gentiles. This is even more striking because there is no apparent source for this ruling, which suggests that Maimonides considered this principle obvious and self-evident, perhaps stemming from his philosophical beliefs about the nature of the soul and how immortality is attained through a process of elevating the intellect and character, which would be impossible without correct beliefs. It would seem, according to Maimonides, that morality without acceptance of the yoke of Heaven is simply not considered moral.
 See for example Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzato's introduction to Aggadah, found in the beginning of most editions of the Ein Yaakov, and Maimonides’ commentary on Mishna Sanhedrin, introduction to chapter 10, "the third group", p. 137, Kapach Edition, and Ibn Ezra's introduction to his commentary on Chumash.
 Midrash Tanchuma Bereishis 1
 Chulin 60b
 See Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 1:9.
 Shenk, David, The Genius in All of Us, Doubleday Copyright 2010, pp. 35-37.
 Berachot 20a
 Mishne Torah, Hilchot Temurah 4:13
 Avoda Zara 19a