Sunday, April 25, 2010

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at 2006_04_15, and at May 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Avot - Chapter Three

Mishnah 17

Chapter Three of Pirkei Avot contains a series of teachings of Rabbi Akiva—a figure regarded by many as the greatest of all tannaim. We begin with Mishnah 17:

17. Rabbi Akiva said: Laughter and levity accustom a person to lewdness. Tradition is a fence to Torah; tithes are a fence to wealth; vows are a fence to asceticism; a fence to wisdom is silence.

The first statement in this mishnah is very difficult for modern people to accept, expressing as it does what seems an exaggerated fear of even innocent light-heartedness and humor, which it associates with the gravest sexual transgressions. Why should levity and laughter, which we tend to think of as good things as themselves within limits, as perhaps providing release from the tensions and worries of everyday life, lead to lewdness and licentious behavior? Indeed, many of us would associate excessive solemnity and seriousness with coldness and an oppressively grave approach to life, that may at times be somewhat artificial; people without a sense of humor, we tend to think, may completely fail to understand the subtlety of life. Even the greatest sages, both past and present, have been known on occasion to introduce a serous discourse with a joking remark. Humor is valuable, within limits.

The only way I can read this mishnah to make any sense is to say that a person who laughs at everything may turn to mockery and scorn, which in turn lead to rejection of all values, a cynicism which may ultimately be used to justify throwing off all restraints and following one’s basest instincts. Judaism, by contrast, believes that life is fundamentally serious, and that humor is a spice which one may occasionally to make things more interesting, but not, so to speak, the main course.

In addition, in more concrete terms, one may imagine a raucous party, with much laughter and jokes and, as the evening progresses, the jokes have more and more explicitly sexual overtones. I recall men who are practiced Lotharios saying that the first step in seducing a woman is making her laugh. Perhaps it was this—and all the more so in ancient society, where social mixing of men and women was perhaps less common than in our own environment—that led Rabbi Akiva to say what he did.

The second part of our mishnah lists a series of four seyagim—“limits” or “fences”— that protect the integrity of the value mentioned in the phrase or, to the contrary, that prevent their negative effects.

First, and most important: tradition is seen as protecting the Torah, much as a fence protects a field. This may refer both to the oral tradition of halakhah, and to the Masoretic tradition of the Torah text itself. The masoret, in the broad sense of the oral traditions as to how the Torah is to be observed, including seyagim in the sense of Rabbinic ordinances that prevent a person from violating Torah law itself, protect the integrity of the Torah. Similarly, the textual tradition, including the vocalization of each word in the Torah and the cantillation signs (te’amim) that define the syntax of each sentence, is an important tool in insuring the uniformity and correctness of the actual text, that it is the same Torah as that which we originally received.

“Tithes are a fence to wealth.” Perhaps paradoxically, the Sages believed that, by giving to others, one increased one’s wealth. In a play on words, they said ‘aser kedai shetit’asher—“Give tithes, that you might be wealthy.” As if to say: by separating tithes from one’s bounty, placing a limit upon the unrestricted accumulation of wealth and property, sharing a certain portion of one’s gain for the poor, for the sacred service, or for the communal weal generally, one so-to-speak demonstrated that one was worthy of wealth.

“Vows are a fence to asceticism.” If a person has a certain ascetic, world-rejecting tendency, and feels that refraining from certain pleasures is a path for attaining greater holiness, well and good—but this tendency may not be vague and open-ended. It must be defined in concrete, definite terms, in terms of both quantity and time-frame—and thereby with limits placed upon it. This dictum teaches an important lesson: that even self-abnegation can be excessive, and must be performed in moderation, with limits and boundaries.

Alternatively, the knowledge that one has taken a clear vow to refrain from a given thing will help one to remain steadfast in ones’ aim, and not yield to temptation.

“A fence to wisdom is silence.” This is similar to the aphorism of Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, found somewhat earlier in this tractate: “All my days I grew up among the wise, and I have found nothing as good for the body as silence” (Avot 1.17). Silence as a “fence / hedge for wisdom” implies, first of all, that one thinks before opening one’s mouth, that one doesn’t say the first thing that pops into one’s head, but first listens to others and thinks. (One is reminded here of the saying of Abraham Lincoln, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”). But beyond that: silence is conducive to deep thinking / thought. Our own culture, in which there so constant noise, both in the literal, auditory sense, and in the metaphorical sense of the huge volume of written and visual material that bombards our eyes and senses—of television, radio, Ipods, emails, cell phones, text messages, etc.—is hardly conducive to real wisdom, but to the easily digested, short message, which is of necessity superficial.


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