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Pirke Avot chapter two, verse eighteen: wickedness

Using Jacob Neusner’s translation, because his is on top of the pile:

R. Simeon says, “(1) Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer.
And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine.
But let it be a [plea for] mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be he.
As it is said, For he is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of mercy, and repents of the evil (Joel 2:13).
(3) And never be evil in your own eyes.

There are two ways of looking at this verse. Well, more than two, I’m sure, but two that spring to mind and are included in the commentary.

The first is that if you think that an action is wrong, you should avoid it, even if the society permits it. Or, more or less along those lines, don’t give in to temptation and do things that you will later be ashamed of. That line of interpretation takes R. Simeon ben Nathaniel to mean that each person has a sense of right and wrong that is (for his audience, that is, people learned in Torah) largely correct, and that the trouble is following that sense. This is Rashi’s interpretation. It takes wickedness to pertain to specific acts.

Another is that R. Simeon is talking about a sort of ontological status, where one can consider one’s self good or wicked, almost without reference to any specific act. This is the Rambam’s interpretation. When a man has a mean opinion of himself (says he in the Judah Goldin translation), then any meanness he is guilty of does not seem outrageous to him. While, YHB adds, almost any behavior that smacks of virtue or great-heartedness seems as impossible as flying to the moon. Your sense of right and wrong is framed by your sense of yourself, rather than being objective.

And I’ve come across a third already, one endorsed by R. Travers Herford. He says that R. Simeon likely was using in your own eyes to mean in private; the warning then is not to believe that acts of wickedness performed without witnesses are therefore without consequences. This may tie in more closely with the previous two legs of the triple about prayer; no-one is likely to know if you are meticulous in your prayer, of if you are merely mouthing it rather than giving it your full attention, but that does not mean that the actions do not degrade you and your prayer and prevent the benefits from taking place.

This is also a conception of wicked that connects with actions, rather than status. On the whole, I like that conception, but since the phrasing is negative rather than positive, the middle interpretation is consistent with rejecting the whole idea of goodness or badness as accruing to people rather than actions. And that, I suppose, means that the interpretations are to some extent consistent: one commits wicked acts in private because one thinks of one’s self as wicked in some sense, and violates one’s own sense of right and wrong in doing so. But by rejecting that conception entirely, a person will rely on the internal sense of right and wrong, and act accordingly whether there are witnesses or no.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,