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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse two

Rabbi Hananiah, prefect of the priests, says: Do thou pray for the welfare of the Empire, because were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.


That’s Judah Goldin’s translation, by the way, of the second verse of chapter three of Pirke Avot, if you are just joining in at this Tohu Bohu. The only major disagreement amongst my translators is on the welfare question, as the word is more closely related to peace. Which could make a difference in connotation, and I’ll try to look into that, but I don’t think the raw political point is much different.

And it is raw. Rabbi Hananiah is a leader during the last years of the Second Temple and the first years following. That is, during the First Jewish-Roman war. It’s not altogether unlike a Sunni religious leader in, say, Afghanistan saying that his followers should pray for the welfare of the American Empire, because etcetera etcetera. It’s one perfectly valid political position, but make no mistake about it being a political position, and as much about his fellow mullahs as about the Americans. It is said that R. Hananiah later changed sides and joined the Zealots, but that isn’t here or there for this statement, except to underline that it is this verse, from this moment in his political and institutional life (he is a sort of vice-Priest, standing by to take over if the High Priest cannot fulfill his duties), that is put into the Avot.

I think that inclusion must be meant to say something about the importance of political disagreement and dissent. I mean, on the face of it, R. Hananias seems to be almost in step with the neo-cons of our own day. But by the time the redactors put the Mishnah together a hundred years later, R. Hananias is understood to be speaking in a minority within the Jerusalem community. Although, of course, the Jafneh community is protected by Rome, and Judah the Prince himself is on good terms with the Emperor. But that relationship is protecting the Jews from widespread persecution; the Mishnah and this chapter are committed to paper because of the fear that the Romans will utterly wipe out the tradition.

So there’s tension.

So, as I say, I think the thing I take from this advice is not so much to follow the advice itself, but to value the political discussion and dissension. And, I suppose, to value the religious obligation to participate in politics and government. Not to mix the synagogue and the state, not to have the state support the synagogue or the synagogue support the state, but that individuals are obliged to participate, and that Jews are obliged to participate both as individuals (with their own judgments and decisions) and as Jews (with the community tradition and Law). That’s a heavy burden. And we don’t all do it well all the time. I have my complaints about Rabbi Hananiah and his verse, but I have to give him credit for taking sides.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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