Friday, April 16, 2010

Avot, Chapter 2 (Aggadah)

The first part of this chapter jumps all over the place, chronologically: it begins with a saying attributed to “Rabbi” (i.e., Judah the Prince) and to his son, Rabban Gamaliel III, then jumps back to a series of sayings attributed to Hillel the Elder, perhaps two centuries or more earlier. But the bulk of the chapter, from §9 on, is concerned with Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the figure who masterminded the survival of Judaism after the Destruction of the Second Temple, and his disciples, including: a listing of their names and their qualities (§§10-11); a comparison among them, in two different versions (§12); the answers of each one to the questions, “What is the good path a man ought to pursue / follow?” and “What is the evil path a person ought to avoid?”( §§13-14); and, finally, three short characteristic sayings of each one (§§15-19).

Mishnah 5

We will begin with a saying from the earlier part of the chapter, which contains several sayings of Hillel the Elder:

He [Hillel] used to say: A coarse person cannot be sin-fearing, nor an ignorant man pious. The shy person cannot learn, nor the imperious one teach. Nor do all those who engage in much trade become wise; and where there is no man, strive to be a man.

This brief saying contains several important insights about human nature. First, a certain connection is drawn between refinement and intellect, and ethical and spiritual virtue: namely, that true piety or fear of God cannot exist in the absence of general menschlichkeit and a certain minimal cultural standard. I don’t think this is intellectual snobbery; rather, the idea that one needs a certain minimal store of knowledge and intelligence, the ability to evaluate the subtleties and complexities of situations one may encounter in life, to be a truly religious man. This is in contrast to the medieval Christian idea of the “holy fool” (also celebrated in Hasidism, as in R. Nahman of Bratslav’s tale of The Wise Man and the Simpleton).

The first two terms in this mishnah reflect a certain order: the bor, the coarse person, cannot even be “fearful of sin,” the lowest level of piety; while the am ha-aretz is defined as unlettered, but not outright boorish: he, it is implied, may fear sin, even be punctilious about avoiding transgression on a certain minimal level, but he cannot be truly pious, which require something more.

The next two phrases also complement one another: the shy student will be embarrassed to ask questions or admit that he doesn’t understand something and requires needs further explanation, and therefore will fail to learn properly; the overbearing, strict teacher will frighten even the normal student from asking questions or admitting his own ignorance, through fear of mockery and acerbic tongue-lashing. (Interestingly, some of the greatest Torah teachers, of both ancient and recent times, were known for their ferocity in the classroom; if they nevertheless raised generations of students, I believe it was despite, not because of, this quality.)

The fifth phrase, “not all those that engage much in trade become wise,” can be read in two ways. On the one hand, that people often associate wealth and worldly success with wisdom; the mishnah cautions us that this isn’t so, that the self-made millionaire can still be stupid in every area of life but making money. And, to the contrary: there may be the proverbial geniuses starving in garrets. Alternatively, one might think that those who engage in trade, and thus travel a lot and get to meet different peoples and see different countries, will gain wisdom from this; our mishnah comments, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Finally, the sixth clause, “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man,” seems to me to caution against excessive self-effacement. A person may think: I’m not good enough to lead communal prayer/give a Devar Torah in public/head a committee (etc.) One must understand that no one is born a professor, a prime minister, a rosh yeshivah, or even a pope (lehavdil). Everyone is “just a person” who gradually learns to do whatever they do, largely through doing it. (I am reminded of a friend of mine who, at a certain point in middle age, found himself buying a home in a comfortable suburban neighborhood suitable to those of his professional status lived, and remarking with astonishment that “In the ‘60s, this is where our friends’ parents lived!” This same person, when named to an endowed chair at his university, commented with some wonder that ‘This was the chair that my mentor A used to fill!”)It was this same message that Rabbi Nathan Kamanetsky tried to convey in writing his father’s biography, The Making of a Gadol. The ultra-Orthodox world was too much enthralled in the mystique of the “gadol” to accept this message with grace.

Mishnah 9 - 11

9. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai received [the Torah] from Hillel and from Shammai. He used to say: If you have learned much Torah, do not credit it to your own good, for it was for this that you were created.

10. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai had five disciples. …

11. He would enumerate their praises: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a like a well- caulked cistern that does not lose a drop; Yehoshua ben Hannania: Happy is she who bore him! Yossi ha-Kohen is pious; Shimon ben Netanel fears sin. Eleazar ben Arakh is like an ever-flowing spring.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s general motto was: Don’t be arrogant about the Torah you’ve acquired over the years (even though in ancient Jewish society, as in contemporary Haredi society, the talmid hakham, the Torah sage, was the most highly respected type of figure), for such is your natural goal in life; it is for this purpose that God created you. This may be one of the first times that this ideal is stated in quite such clear and unequivocal terms: learning Torah is the summum bonum, the highest good.

The praises of the various disciples are interesting, in that they are not all of a piece. Not all of them relate to scholarly traits: rather, two are of an intellectual nature; two pertain to the individual’s moral or spiritual character; and one is a general statement that is difficult to apply to any specific trait. We shall start with this last one: “Happy is she who bore him” or, in colloquial American, “He would make his mother proud!” Those of us who grew up in twentieth century America, with jokes about Jewish mothers and their pride in their children (“my son the doctor”), as well as with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and the stereotype of the domineering Jewish mother, may find this faintly amusing, or perhaps naïve. What mother doesn’t think her son is God’s gift to humanity? Just this week, the Israeli police arrested a 15-yaer-old youth in the case of a brutal and senseless murder, and the news reported that his mother stated “But he’s a good boy!”

But joking aside, what we can say is that Rabbi Yehoshua was in some sense an all-around ideal figure, one who made all those who knew him admire him. I imagine him as a warm, loving, generous figure, who uplifted the spirits of those near him by his mere presence, filling their lives with joy and love, even without any unique teaching or moral traits that one could point to. I visualize someone like the Bostoner Rebbe, who even in advanced old age and with serious health problems always seems to have a smile on his lips and to exude love and inner strength.

Rabbi Yossi ha-Kohen and Shimon ben Netanel, hasid and yerei het, are a pair. ”Fear,” particularly “fear of sin,” implies meticulous attention to mitzvot and even anxiety lest one err in some aspect of one’s halakhic performance, with special punctiliousness about negative commandments. Hasid, even in a pre-Beshtian context, connotes religious enthusiasm, a constant flow of action and joyous emotion, one who prays and performs the mitzvot with fervor and intensity, who goes above and beyond what is formally required of him, and who does them as an expression of love and not merely duty.

Finally, there are the two very different intellectual traits of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and of Eleazar ben Arakh. The one is characterized by tremendous knowledge and, the necessary precondition thereof, a powerful and retentive memory. Particularly in an era before the Oral Torah was recorded in writing (but even thereafter, and even after Gutenberg), the man who knew a lot was an essential link in preserving the Jewish tradition, which contains a myriad of diverse details. Such a person was known as Sinai, a walking Torah scroll. The other type is renowned for his intellectual creativity, his sharpness of analysis, for constantly thinking about and in Torah and coming up with new ideas and interpretations, bubbling over like a mountain spring. He is also called oker harim, the “uprooter of mountains,” the man of incisive critical acumen, who causes others to rethink their most fundamental assumptions. Interestingly, the following mishnah records two divergent answers to the question as to which of the two is more important.

Mishnah 14

We return to the five disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, and their various summa bonum. The following are the words of the disciple described as the most brilliant and creative of all, the “constantly flowing spring,” R. Eleazar ben Arakh:

Rabbi Eleazar son of Arakh said: You should be diligent in learning Torah, and know what to answer an apikorus [heretic], and know before whom you labor; [and know] that your employer may be relied upon to reward you for your labors.

The final phrase is a kind of coda. The three basic “mottos” all relate to the central value of learning Torah, and what one must learn from it. First, that one must, quite simply, be diligent, apply oneself. Second, one must know how to answer a “heretic.” This requires a certain openness, rather different talents than those required of a sage who addresses the committed and convinced. One must be aware of the existence of people who think differently, who have wildly divergent views from those of the tradition, and respect them enough to at least engage their reasoning seriously, if only to then know how to persuade them by reasoning and argumentation. Third, one must know “before whom you labor.” Kehati reads sees this as a general imperative to “know God”: a kind of Maimonidean amor dei intellectualus, the love of God that comes about via cognition. Or perhaps this is related to the final phrase: know before whom you labor {i.e. God} because he may be relied upon in the end to reward you for your efforts, tedious, burdensome, and heavy as they may seem at times.

Mishnah 18

I now turn to a passage from one of the five disciples—Shimon ben Natanel, the pious—who, perhaps characteristically, focuses upon prayer. We will hopefully get to at least some of the others next time around:

Rabbi Shimon said: Take care about reading Shema and reciting Prayer; and when you pray, do not make your prayer a fixed thing, but rather [asking for] mercy and beseeching the Omnipresent, as is said, “for He is merciful and compassionate…” (Joel 2:13); and be not evil in your own eyes.

This past week I happened to study the parallel to this passage in Berakhot 29b, where the gemara discusses precisely what is meant by not making prayer “a fixed thing.” One view is that one should not relate to prayer as a burden, an obligation to be discharged. There is a certain paradox here, because the very fact that it is defined as a mitzvah, an obligatory religious duty, with certain parameters and minimum requirements, makes it a duty to be discharged. Indeed, this tension is inherent in the very nature of the halakhah as a legal system that is simultaneously a religious teaching. The halakhah itself wants people to perform prayer as “service of the heart,” as an inward act, at the same time that it is nevertheless obligatory, fixed. Somehow, despite its formal, statutory character, it must be treated as something beyond mere duty, as a thrice-daily living encounter with one’s Creator. Anyone who has ever tried to follow this discipline knows how difficult it is.

A second view states that one must innovate something in each prayer, that it not be mere rote recitation of a fixed text. Finally, what I find the most interesting approach is that one must should endeavor to pray be-dimdumei hamah, “by the faint light of the sun”— that is, at dawn and at dusk. This last view is seemingly even more restrictive and formalistic (think of the Hasidim who insisted on breaking free from the fetters of “clock Judaism,” and were notorious for davening outrageously late). But in fact, the idea here is that both sunrise and sunset represent quasi-mystical times of grace, uniquely suitable to prayer and to arousing Divine mercy. The concluding phrase in this mishnah, “Be not evil in your own eyes,” is a warning against the dangers of self castigation. A certain modicum of self-awareness and self-criticism is a necessary component of any serious, ethical life. But it is a far cry from that to a feeling of chronic guilt, a sense of almost existential sinfulness and inadequacy, such as is found in certain streams of the Mussar movement (not to mention classical Christianity).

It is interesting (and again, this was written 1600 years before the movement we know as Hasidism) that it is specifically the hasid, Rabbi Shimon, who emphasizes the dangers of negative thought. The emphasis of Beshtian Hasidism on joy is not simply a matter of singing and dancing and jumping about, as it is sometimes taken today, but a conscious antidote to the dangers of excessive self-criticism and negativity (see Rivka Schatz’s book Hasidism as Mysticism, which has an entire chapter on this subject).


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