Thursday, April 15, 2010

Avot, Chapter 1 (Aggadah)


I am beginning, somewhat belatedly, a new series: comments and insights on the Mishnaic tractate of Avot, better known as Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” which is customarily read during the summer months, and especially between Pesah and Shavuot. In Ashkenazic practice it is read following Minhah of Shabbat; among some Sephardim, it is read at the end of Musaf. One chapter is read each week; a sixth chapter, known as Beraita Kinyan Torah, which is not strictly speaking part of the Mishnaic tractate, is read on the sixth week, so as to complete the cycle of six non-festival weeks between Pesah and Shavuot, as well as to serve as a kind of introduction to Shavuot, the festival of Giving (or, some would say, Receiving) the Torah. The cycle is repeated a second time between Shavuot and the 17th of Tammuz; a third time between 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Elul; and yet a fourth time, albeit truncated and doubling over the final chapters, during the month of Elul. Our presentation will be keyed to this cycle: each week we will discuss a few mishnayot from the reading for that week, proceeding chapter by chapter, and returning where we left off in subsequent cycles. Hopefully, by the end of the summer we will have covered a good part of this well-loved little book.

An introductory comment: the tractate as a whole serves two distinct purposes. The first, more familiar and obvious to most, is to present a series of epigrams about life, morality, Torah, how a person ought to behave—brief but profound sayings that the various Sages were in the habit of repeating, perhaps as a kind of “summing up” of their life philosophy: hence its popular English title, “Ethics of the Fathers.” The second and more central aim of the tractate is to authenticate the Oral Torah by enumerating the links in the chain of tradition, thereby showing its ultimate roots in Sinai. This is especially clear in the opening mishnah, but may be seen in the organization of the tractate as a whole, which presents quite a complete listing of the generations of the Sages, with brief epigrams cited in the name of each one. Thus, following the introductory mishnah, the first chapter is organized around the zugot, the pairs of senior sages, nasi and av bet din, from the Great Assembly that existed in the earliest days of the Return to Zion, down to Hillel and Shammai. The second chapter centers upon Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his five disciples, the key figures in establishing the Torah center in Yavneh following the Destruction of the Second Temple. And so forth.

Mishnah 1

Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and gave it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets gave it to the Men of the Great Assembly.

They said three things: Be moderate [or: deliberate] in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.

The underlying concept of this tractate, as mentioned earlier, is shalshelet hadorot—the chain of the tradition through the generations. Rav Soloveitchik often repeated the idea that Judaism, more so than it is a religion of revelation, is a religion of a “Masorah community,” of received tradition, of faith in our predecessors, who have passed down the tradition as they received it. Reportedly, when the Rav gave semikhah to his students, he would say, “You are now charged with passing on the tradition of Torah as you have received it.” In such a community, being able to say “I do such-and-such in this way because I saw my father / my teacher doing it thus” is one of the more powerful arguments that may be evoked; more so, even, than saying “It is written thus in such-and-such a book.” In much the same way, we are expected to pass it on; hence, the essential act of Talmud Torah (e.g. in Rambam, Talmud Torah 1.1-2), more so than for a person to himself study at fixed times, is for each father to teach his children.

And tradition, most essentially, means Torah sheba’al peh, the Oral Torah, which is intimately bound with the process of human transmission, of teaching, of the relationship of direct contact between rebbe and talmid, mentor and disciple. Note: this involves, not only the actual contents of what is taught, but the very being of the teacher, a certain way of being in the world, a model to be emulated, that is somehow also transmitted through this process.

One of the reasons for emphasizing the authenticity of the tradition is that the Sages were well aware of the gap between the written Torah and the traditions of Oral Torah; they realized that the laws found in the Oral Torah often seemed like a tour de force, presenting concepts and practices whose connection with the scriptural text often seemed tenuous at best (“the laws of Shabbat are like mountains hanging from a hair; the laws of releasing oaths are as if suspended in mid-air”—Mishnah Hagiggah 1.8). Hence, the exegetical reasoning that fill many pages of the Talmud, combined with the faith in the chain of tradition, were crucial to support its validity. We now turn to the second half of this mishnah, the saying quoted in the name of the Men of the Great Assembly (itself a rather ambiguous group, whose historicity has been questioned by some). Note that all three clauses of this saying are addressed, not to everyman, but specifically to the Sages, to those who function in capacities of Torah leadership among the people—in brief, the members of the Sanhedrin. (This pattern may be seen in many other saying in Avot, which is a mélange of internal discourse among the leadership, and epigrams of more general purport.) The first phrase (“be deliberate in judgment”) refers to the process of judgment itself; “raising up many disciples” relates to teaching, the quintessential activity of the ”chain of tradition” described earlier; while “making a fence for the Torah” alludes to the legislative function of the Rabbis, to protecting the integrity of the Torah and its observance by various precautionary measures (e.g., muktzeh and Rabbinically prohibited labors as a kind of “fence” around Shabbat laws; separate sets of dishes and other kitchen utensils as a fence around kashrut; the avoidance of close physical contact or intimate situations between the sexes as a “fence” against sexual license; etc.). All this is based upon a keen sense of the psychology of temptation.

Mishnah 2

Shimon the Righteous was among the remnants of the Great Assembly. He said: The world stands upon three things: the Torah, on the Divine service, ad on the practice of acts of kindness.

Here, too, we have a list of three central ideas: a list of those things that are most essential to the existence of the world, namely, three central areas of Divine service (based on the notion that the universe itself was created for the sake of man’s, or more specifically Israel’s, service of God). These three might also be described as three dimensions of human spiritual-cultural activity: the intellectual; the spiritual-theological-devotional; and the ethical-inter-personal.

Note that none of these can exist without the other two. Thus this mishnah, in addition to identifying these fundaments as such, is also about the importance of harmony or balance. The image of the world standing on these things is a concrete physical one: a three-legged stool, the minimum number needed for any kind of stability. Or, one might say that these three represent not only polarities, but also built-in checks and balances (as in the three branches of government in the US system). Each of the two balances a certain potential for excess that exists in the third; each one by itself counterbalances the drawbacks of the other two.

I am reminded of a Hasidic saying—what they call a sharfer vort, “a sharp word”— I heard once from Rav Adin Steinsaltz. In the original Yiddish: “M’darf zein klug, und frum, und gutt. Klug alayn ist a ganiff; frum alyn ist a galakh; gutt alayn ist a noyef!” This translates, roughly, to: “A person needs to be clever, and pious, and good. One who is clever alone can be a thief! One who is pious alone is tantamount to a [Christian] priest; one who is good alone [i.e., kind-hearted, with a tendency towards sentimentality] can be an adulterer!” In essence, this saying is about the same three fundaments: Klug is Torah; frum is Divine service, worship, taken by itself; and gutt alone is deeds of kindness.

Of course, we have always had personalities or movements in Judaism that primarily emphasize one or another of these three: there is the talmid hakham, the scholar, devoted exclusively to study of Torah, who is a walking repository of knowledge and erudition; there is the ba’al avodah, the pietist who has cultivated the soul attitude characteristic of prayer as the central paradigm for his religious life (the conventional wisdom is that the debate between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism was essentially as to which of these two models I most central); and then there is the ba’al hesed, the man (or woman) devoted to deeds of human kindness and caring, who is always visiting the sick, arranging help for the indigent, inviting the lonely, attending every funeral, shivah, brit and wedding, etc. etc. (Gershom Scholem has a little essay entitled “Three Types of Jewish Piety” in which he elaborates upon three different, but related models).

Mishnah 3

Antigonos of Socho received [the tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He said: Be not like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be like servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward. And may the fear of Heaven be upon you.

We find here, expressed in simple, pithy language, what many have described as a central theme in Judaism: the ideal of serving of God without ay ulterior motivation. Don’t be like those who perform the mitzvot out of self-interest, in the expectation of reward (whether in this world or the next), but like those who serve the Master because they love Him, and His service is itself precious to them. This idea is given, perhapsof its most sublime expression in the final chapter of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah (and of Sefer ha-Mada’ as a whole): service of God through love alone—“Do the truth because it is the truth,” with their confidence that whatever reward one is deserving of will come of its own accord. (see HY V [=Rambam]: Yom Kippur)

Interestingly, this issue is one on which we find dramatically opposed viewpoints in this short tractate. Thus, in the opening mishnayot of both the second and the third chapters, we find the opposite approach expressed: admonishing people to behave properly, by reminding them to bear in mind that “there is an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are recorded” (2.1) or, in even more extreme terms, reminding man of the transient and even grossly physical nature of his bodily existence, invoking the day of his death and that he will have to answer for his actions (see above, Behar).

How are we to interpret these differing sayings? Possibly, some would say, as different levels of service: selfless love as the ultimate ideal, with the carrot and stick of Divine recompense as an interim educational tactic used to motivate less-developed souls (thus Rambam, in many places). Other Musar writers invoke the ideas of “love” and “fear” as twin motifs, both equally important in the service of God, which complement one another (in much the same way as the first two paragraphs of Shema, Shema and Vehaya im shamo’a, which represent respectively the ideas of love and fear, are both essential). Or are they based on different evaluations of human beings in general and what may be expected from them?

Rabbi Benny Lau, in his recently published book The Sages (based upon his own popular lecture series on Pirkei Avot) portrays the relation between the two in more confrontational terms, as representing two rival, even conflicting ways of looking at one of the basic issues of religion. He describes Antigonos’ approach as a radical innovation, vis-a-vis the mainstream view of Hazal which, following the literal sense of Tanakh, sees reward and punishment as an essential component of any Judaic world-view. Indeed, the Rabbis blame Antigonos’ doctrine, at least by implication or indirectly, as the source of the heresy of the Zaddokites and Boethusians, who rejected the Oral Law. Their argument was that: if there is no reward and punishment (which Antigonos does not say; but his words could be taken as removing reward and punishment as significant motivations in religious life), then why bother to observe the commandments in careful, punctilious fashion? Lay counterpoises Antigonos to R. Hanina ben Dosa who, in 3.11, emphasizes fear as the basic axiom of religious life.

I would like to make two comments about our contemporary situation viz. the issue of “fear vs. love.” On a certain important love, the fear of punishment, or of not receiving any reward for one’s actions, is essentially ego-centered. At times, it seems to be that, in very different form, this is part of the underlying attraction of today’s revival of “spirituality”? Much of what passes for that is in fact self-help, guidelines to people how to feel better with themselves? Or take a popular way of “selling” Kabbalah: that it will make you wealthier, more powerful, more attractive to the opposite sex, etc. Antigonos’ view, by contrast, is based on Torah lishmah—which I would translate as: orientation towards universals, God as transcendent, outside our petty, transient human concerns, etc. (which is also an idea in much Hasidic though, where it is called bittul atzmi).

This view also meets the needs of the modern zeitgeist in another way. Many people today find it difficult to believe in benevolent Providence, or any direct form of recompense. This is so, first, because science has made us too aware of the operation of natural causality in the world. But ion addition, and especially, for us Jews the Holocaust has upset such traditional beliefs beyond repair. In the past I used to think that this was a fallacious argument; philosophically, the issue of theodicy is the same whether one is speaking of one suffering individual (the problem of Job) or of six million. But somehow, through the fact of the Holocaust, quantity has somehow created a different quality. The Jewish people has known mass expulsions, pogroms and wholesale murders before, but never before was there a systematic attempt to decimate entire Jewish communities, indeed, whole regions of Jews. The number of victims was numbered, not in scores or even hundreds of individuals, but in hundreds and even thousands of towns and villages.

Hence, Antigonus makes more sense for our day. A kind of unrequited love of God; mitzvot as demonstration of one’s commitment to God despite everything and anything that may happen in real life. Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to speak in such terms: of religious life totally divorced from any hope or fear of Divine recompense ir involvement in human life. An older gentleman of my acquaintance—a German Jew who left Germany a few months after Krystallnacht, and who in Israel was a devoted participant in Leibowitz’s weekly shiurim—said that such a teaching was the only one which enabled him to lead a religious Jewish life after the Holocaust. While those of us born after Holocaust, who were fortunate enough to experience its horrors on our own flesh, may not have the biting edge of an Elie Weisel (or of a Rav Amital), who says he prays despite God’s abandoning us, nevertheless, the naïve belief that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” has a hollow sound. Our only path can be that of “nevertheless…” —of the path of Torah and mitzvot because it is right.

Mishnah 4

Yossi ben Yoezer of Tzereda and Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received from them. Yossi ben Yoezer of Tzereda said: may your home be a meeting place of the sages; and you should sit at the dust of their feet, and drink their words with thirst.

This mishnah presents a striking contrast to 1.1, which speaks of the importance of exercising care and deliberation in judgment, raising many students, and making fences around Torah. Clearly, the former is part of the internal discourse among the sages, concerning their responsibility, as teachers and leaders, towards the people as a whole; here, and in the next mishnah, we have advice directed to the ordinary person, the ordinary “householder.” He cannot engage in Torah study on the same level as the sages, but he can provide them with the material setting for them to engage in teaching, and he may himself listen to them (“sit in the dust at their feet”) and absorb what he can, in a passive, receptive mode (“drink their words with thirst”).

It is also interesting to contrast this mishnah to 2.15, warning a person against a ferocious side to the sages: “Warm yourself before the fire of the sages, but take care of their sparks, that you not be burned; for their biting is like that of a fox, and their sting is like that of a scorpion, and their hissing is like that of a snake, and all their words are like coals of fire.”

Mishnah 5

Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open, and let the poor be as members of your household, and do not engage overly much in conversation with women. This is said even regarding his own wife; all the more so regarding his neighbor’s wife. From this, the Sages said: Whoever overindulges in conversation with women causes himself harm, neglects words of Torah, and his end is to inherit Gehinnom.

The first half of this mishnah is again addressed to the householder: he should engage in hospitality to the stranger (the famed Abrahamic virtue!), and in particular make the poor, who are likely to feel downtrodden and miserable and lack the comforts of a home of their own, take succor in being in a comfortable home. (The phrase ben-bayit, literally, “son of the house,” is used of a person who is a regular guest in a particular home; it is a uniquely Hebraic expression, expressing this ethic.) Taken together, these two mishnayot provide a warm, positive image of the Jewish home, as the center from which the Jewish householder is able to engage in acts of kindness and helpfulness to others, as well as contribute towards Torah discourse by providing a venue for such. (The assumption seems to be that the sage himself is either itinerant, without a home of his own, or else his home is not large enough or “presentable” enough to serve as a dignified center. In our own south Jerusalem community, there are a number of wealthy people with large homes who regularly open their homes to serve as a venue for Torah lectures.)

But then comes the final, clause in this mishnah: to avoid excessive conversation with women. I cannot help but contrast this with a remark I once read by Salman Rushdie: he said that, in India, the conversation among women is infinitely more interesting than that of men: the men are always talking about business, the stock market, real estate; whereas women in India, perhaps like their sisters in the West, are in the midst of a period of dynamic change, breaking through into involvement in the great world, and are filled with interesting observations about society, culture, human behavior, etc.

Were the rabbis simply afflicted with misogyny? Or does this reflect an exaggerated fear of female sexuality—the idea that every encounter between the sexes inevitably carries sexual overtones. Needless to say, this is no entire untrue; the question is whether strict social separation is not “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” We moderns prefer to deal with the problem by internal controls; some Haredim would doubtless suggest that we are less than successful. Or is it rather a matter of women not studying Torah, and therefore not having anything of value to say? Again, in our generation there are increasing numbers of women who too study and are even learned in Torah, suggesting that they have much to contribute to the overall discourse—and it is good that this is so.

But I must conclude by defending our Sages, and not leaving them simply as woman-hating primitives. First, that in their time the role and situation of the two sexes was so different that excessive mingling did present certain dangers. Second, even in our own day, notwithstanding “unisex” and egalitarianism and liberation and the like, there is such a thing as conversation among each gender by themselves, which is certainly of a very different tenor, and in many ways far more comfortable and easy, than that of mixed groups—which is, of course, not to exclude the validity of the latter. And these matters deserve much more extensive discussion than I can give them now.


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