Sunday, April 25, 2010

Avot, Chapter 3 (Aggadah)

A few words about the arrangement of the chapters of Pirkei Avot: the first chapter, after presenting the basis for the chain of tradition from Moses through the Men of the Great Assembly, takes us down through the zugot, the “pairs,” to Hillel and Shammai; the second chapter introduce the great transitional figure of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his major disciples; the third chapter fills in some lacuna in the history of the tannaim with sayings from a variety of figures from the era of Yavneh, the second and third generation of tannaim, and introducing the central figures of the two great schools of exegesis, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael (§§16-17). The fourth chapter, which we read next week, takes us north to Galilee, to the Study House in Usha, after the trauma of the Hadrianic persecutions of ca. 135 CE had put an end to the Torah centers in the southern-central part of the Land of Israel. The fifth chapter is based upon a totally different principle of organization—sayings related to numbers, such as ten, seven and four—with only a smattering of sayings whose authors are named at all; while the sixth chapter is extra-canonical.

Our chapter includes a sequence of mishnayot (§§3-4, 6) on the importance of study of Torah at human gatherings of various sizes, whether at the table or in general, and the negative nature of gatherings where Torah is absent. This grouping is followed, or perhaps completed, by two brief sayings (§§9-10) about the sin of allowing oneself to be distracted from one’s Torah or even to forget it. I bring here the most comprehensive of that group:

Mishnah 1

And a brief taste of Chapter Three, this week’s chapter. I don’t have a clear sense of the organizing principle underlying the specific choice of sages quoted here, so I will go straight into the first mishnah without further ado:

1. Akavia ben Mehalallel said: Look at three things and you shall not come to sin. Know from whence you come, to where you are going, and before whom you will need to give an accounting. From whence did you come? From a putrid drop [of semen]. To where are you going? To a place of earth and worms. And before whom will you need to give an accounting? Before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.

Whenever I read this mishnah, I see in my mind’s eye the Jew from the Hevra Kaddisha of Kehillat Jerusalem, who chants this mishnah in a lugubrious voice at the end of every funeral,. Interestingly, the opening mishnah of Chapter 2 is concerned with the selfsame question: “Rabbi [i.e., Judah the Prince] said: Look at three things, and you shall not come to sin. Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book.”

What is the difference between these two formulations? The mishnah in Chapter 3 is what might be called “powerful medicine,” administered when all else fails, pulling man into line morally and spiritually by reminding him of his mortality and attempting to arouse disgust and contempt for life itself, with all its pleasures and pains and loves and hatreds. We all owe our existence to the almost random event of a particular act of love or lust which, possibly without any deliberate intention, led to our conception. (King David is portrayed by the midrash as being drive half-mad by this fact; see Lev Rab. 14.5, elaborating on Ps 51:7; and see HY III: Tazria-Metzora= Tazria-Metzora [Midrash]). And, at the other end of life, we will all end up with our body moldering in the grave.

Yet these thoughts, taken by themselves, might well lead one to despair, or to its seeming flip side—hedonism; living for the present moment; cynicism about any absolute truth or values. Without “the fear of God”—which I interpret to mean, not only fear in the literal sense, or even awe of the Divine majesty, but the basic sense of norms and ethics rooted in the presence in the universe of a Creator—there is no firm basis for morality. Of course, there are many good men who call themselves atheists and agnostics, just as there are many pious and outwardly “religious” scoundrels, and many wise men have worked hard and written thick tomes to provide a secular basis fur moral philosophy—but the end result remains shaky and tenuous.

The mishnah in Chapter 2 arrives at the same conclusion, but without invoking the stark and gruesome images of our physical mortality. As the Rav puts it in Halakhic Man, the two mishnayot might be compared to the healthy-minded, confident approach of “halakhic man,” as against the preoccupation with death and sin and pietistic stock-taking that are the stock in trade of certain Musar schools. He concludes with the caustic observation that strong medicine is needed only for the sick, not the healthy.

Mishnah 7

Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa of Kfar Hananya said: Wherever ten people sit and engage in Torah the Shekhinah is present among them, as is said “God stands in the Divine assembly” (Ps 82:1). And from whence that even among five? As is said, “and His band is established upon the earth” (Amos 9:6). And from whence even three? As is said, “among the judges He sits” (Ps, ibid.). And from whence even two? As is said, “Then those that fear God spoke [each one to his fellow], and the Lord heard and listened, and He paid heed” (Mal 3:16). And from whence even one? As is said, “in every place that My name shall be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you” (Exod 20:24).

I would like to read this mishnah as a kind of mini-sociology of community, an enumeration of different kinds of human groupings. I will consider these in reverse order than our mishnah, from smallest to largest:

One: Even an individual who engages in the study of Torah is doing something that somehow pleases God and attracts the Divine Presence. That which a person does by him/herself is significant—certainly intellectually (study is in a certain sense always a solitary activity, involving as it does the understanding of the subject matter within the individual brain!), but also spiritually, culturally, and psychologically.

Two: Two human beings engaged in some common action already constitute a “fellowship,” the nucleus of a “community.” In the traditional yeshiva setup, a hevruta, a pair of study partners, constitutes the basic unit of study during most of the day. The testimony of two people is required to verify and witness many things. Man and woman together as a couple are the basis for the nuclear family. Rav Soloveitchik, in his famous essay The Lonely Man of Faith, written as a midrash on Genesis 1 and 2, sees Adam and Eve, the first couple, as already constituting a rudimentary form of human community.

Three: Three already form a group with a certain internal dynamic, the possibility of more complex interaction—not only of back-and-forth discourse and perhaps argumentation, but of majority and minority opinions. Hence Jewish law states that the smallest court of law is the tribunal, three being the smallest number capable of issuing a decisive decision without the dangers of an individual deciding the fate of his fellows by himself.

Why does our mishnah skip the number four? After all, there are four sons in the Haggadah, four different levels of interpretation of Torah (literal, allegorical, symbolic, and esoteric); and a whole series of examples of fours right here in Avot 5.13-19.

Five: Five is called an agudah, a band. The number is called thus, perhaps, because it corresponds to the fingers of the hand. (The thumb, the finger needed together with the others in order required to grasp things, is referred to in modern Hebrew as agudal.) Five, while not a community, is already a substantial group, capable of gathering together for action.

Ten: Ten is a microcosm of Klal Yisrael. It is, as is well known, the minyan, the minimum number required for public prayer because, as our mishnah says, when ten are gathered together the Shekhinah is present. But it can also be a community in the negative sense as well, as in the ten spies in Shelah lekha who brought back a negative report.

Mishnah 11-12

Following a series of mishnayot focusing on the importance of public study of Torah, in groups of varying sizes (discussed in HY IX: Korah), there are two brief sayings about the importance of wisdom being integrated with other values:

11. Rabbi Hanina den Dosa said: He whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom shall be lasting. But he whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom is not lasting.

12. He used to say: He whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom is lasting. But he whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, his wisdom is not lasting.

Both these mishnayot, by the pious tanna Hanina ben Dosa, focus on the same issue: the proper place of wisdom vis-à-vis other values. In both cases here, wisdom must be preceded by something else: “fear of sin”—that is, a certain basic ethical attitude; and “deeds”—concrete action, good deeds, in the world. It would seem that R. Hanina had a deeply-rooted fear of what might happen to an individual if “wisdom” were to become the predominant, guiding feature in his personality. What is the source of this concern? We know that Judaism as a culture has always placed a great premium upon the intellect: the talmid hakham, the person of \deep and extensive knowledge of Torah, must first and foremost excel in intellectual attainment. In modern Jewish culture, admiration for the intellect—the secular critical intellectual, the man of ideas, the scientist—is nearly ubiquitous. But necessary as this may be, R. Hanina —and, I would add, many other sages—saw the danger of intellect unchecked by other qualities. Intellect in itself is value free; it seeks to know, to accumulate ever more knowledge, to understand, to analyze, to compare and categorize and create new theories, or at least “hiddushim.” By itself, it need not necessarily lead to right, good, ethical behavior, to kindness or generosity or caring for the other, not to mention the kind of dedication that is willing to sacrifice itself if need be.

There were those, like Maimonides, who thought that intellect in itself, if properly applied, if rooted in proper training and systematic application of the correct axioms, would lead to right belief, behavior and character. His warning against delving into certain kinds of profound wisdom—whether the religious doctrines and thought of the non-Jewish world, as in Avodat Kokhavim 2.3, or the secrets of the Divine Chariot and of Creation—are based upon the fear that the person who is unprepared may fall into error. But, in principle, he believes, rather naively, that if a truly wise man properly understands the right course he must follow, he will do so.

In another sense, Wisdom may be viewed as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the Torah itself is identified with Wisdom: see the opening chapters of Proverbs, for example. In Kabbalah, Hokhmah, “Wisdom,” is the highest sefirah of all, an instrument for infusing the infinite Divine light into the universe. On the other hand, in Greek culture wisdom (Sophia, Logos, Gnosis) is also the highest good. There, it seems to be independent of all theological or ethical restraints, but is the highest end in itself. Perhaps the wisdom which R. Hanina b. Dosa wished to be placed behind the fear of God is of this latter kind.


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