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Pirke Avot chapter two, verse nineteen

We are nearing the end of Chapter Two at last. This is the last of the section about the five disciples of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Hm. The five disciples… wouldn’t that make a great musical? No? OK, onward, beginning with Joseph Hertz:

R. Elazar said, Be eager to learn Torah; know what answer to give the unbeliever; know also before whom thou toilest, and who thy Employer is, who will pay thee the reward of thy labor.

Jacob Neusner has constant instead of eager; R. Travers Herford has alert; Judah Goldin has diligent (as does the Chabad website); and Michael L. Rodkinson has zealous. I’m afraid I have no idea. It seems as though there’s a lot of guessing. I think Rabbi Hertz is probably the loser here, as eagerness has little connotation of persistence that is common among the others, but then, they might well be reading that in from their own biases. Very difficult.

And what is more difficult about it, what makes it difficult for me to shrug it off and move on from it, is that it seems to be a separate leg of the triple. Unless we bail on the whole idea of the verse matching form and being a triple, which I am reluctant to do. If we break the thing into two parts, instead of three, we can suggest that we need to be [eager/constant/alert/diligent/zealous] in study so that we can respond to the unbeliever. And that is clearly part of it. But if we split it into three, as is our custom and the tradition, we need each part to make sense on its own as well as informing the other two parts. On its own, the admonition to be [eager/constant/alert/diligent/zealous] in study does spark any real interest in me, I’m afraid.

And speaking of translational difficulties, the unbeliever in the second bit is the Epicuros or Epicurean; the Hebrew is a transliteration of the Greek. Or it is a coincidence, but that seems a bit much. Anyway, I do like Rabbi Hertz on this one, as there is some problem with associating the Rabbinic epicuros with the actual Epicureans. Much like talking about skeptics and Skeptics, really. The word came into Hebrew and Rabbinic discussion to mean people who did not believe that the traditions of the tribe were compulsory; it also encompasses people who don’t believe in the Divine miracle of Scripture, or people who don’t believe in a Divine Creator at all, or people who hold beliefs about the Scripture and tradition that differ from the person using the word. Everyone who is more traditionally observant than me is frum; everyone who is less traditionally observant than me is an epicuros.

The distinguishing mark of the epicuros, though, as it is used here, is engagement with the tradition, rather than departure from it. As such, the term is used for non-Jews who argue about the tradition as well. R. Elazar insists on the need to answer the apikorsim (plural, switching now to a transliteration) rather than cutting them off from the discussion. I think that’s tremendously important for the Jewish tradition, particularly now in the modern Diaspora, when we’re all apikorsim to somebody.

Digression: the really frum consider us apikorsim to be the most dangerous group around, much more so than the goyim, worse than the Islamo-fascist Menace, scarier than the Neo-Nazis. I feel bad for them. A little. I wish I could consider them to be the biggest danger to Judaism, but honestly? I would have to stretch it. The argument would presumably go frumkeit to Shas Party to settlers to continuing occupation and oppression to discrediting of Zionism to Anti-Semitism. But then, there are plenty of apikorsim who support the settlers and that particular brand of Zionism, and plenty of Anti-Semites without discrediting Zionism anyway. So, you know? When I pass y’all on Saturday morning, driving to work while you walk to shul, and I shake my fist at you, that’s not because you are dangerous to me and my tradition, that’s because you make women sit behind a fucking curtain. End Digression.

So the first two parts are about, more or less, the relationship of the believing Jew to the Scripture, and the relationship of the believing Jew to the non-believer. And then there’s the relationship of the believing Jew to the Divine, which, it turns out, is like the employer-employee relationship.

Can I say that even as a metaphor, that seems really radical? I am used to the Parent/Child metaphor, which is of course natural, and the King/Subject metaphor, which has its problems but is, again, obvious if those are terms you are used to thinking in, and there’s the potter/clay metaphor, which I like a lot, and there’s the shepherd/flock one, which I don’t. But employer/employee? And yet there’s a lot of that language in the tradition. Which tends to back up Douglas Rushkoff’s idea of Judaism as being radically centered around worker’s rights, with the core stories of Exodus and the Creation/Sabbath as being about working conditions. I tend to view that skeptically, myself, but more because I think it’s incomplete than because I think it’s wrong.

But. I have to wonder, coming to the end of the triple here, what the relationship of the apikoros to the Divine is supposed to be. Is the apikoros an Employee? Is the apikoros considered to be unemployed, fired, on probation? Maimonides said that the apikorsim have no share in the world to come. That seems to imply a fundamental breach of contract, that the unbeliever is, in essence, no longer working for the Divine at all. I can’t see that. I think there’s got to be a good deal of freelancing going on, is what I think.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,