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Pirke Avot chapter three, verses eleven through thirteen: the text

We are talking about Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, the miracle worker and mystic. He has three verses in Pirke Avot, and here they are in the Joseph Hertz translation:

R. Chanina, the son of Dosa, said, He in whom the fear of sin comes before wisdom, his wisdom shall endure; but he in whom wisdom comes before the fear of sin, his wisdom shall not endure.

He used to say, He whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom shall endure, but he whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom will not endure.

He used to say, He in whom the spirit of his fellow-creatures takes delight, in him the Spirit of the All-present takes delight, and he in whom the spirit of his fellow-creatures takes not delight, in him the Spirit of the All-present takes not delight.

This is an odd triple, isn’t it? I mean, literarily. It doesn’t balance. The third doesn’t seem to quite go with the first two. The first two are about precedence—let’s take it for granted (he says) that wisdom is a Good Thing, but is it the Best Good Thing? Or, rather, while we pursue it as a Good Thing, should we pursue it single-mindedly? Of course, no. Good deeds and fear of sin take precedence, because they lead to wisdom and maintain it.

I should digress here a moment to acknowledge that it is not obvious that wisdom cannot endure without fear of sin or without good deeds, nor is it obvious the ways in which those things help wisdom endure. I think it is true, and the commentary has several convincing examples and analogies, but it isn’t obvious. And some of the commentary claims that it is obvious, but they do so by means of a tautology, such that the lack of good deeds is a sign of declining wisdom in itself. That doesn’t work. Wisdom, if the verse is to mean anything, must exist as something separate from good deeds. You can’t just say that anything good is wise and anything evil is folly—or rather, you can, but then you have lost the perfectly good words wisdom and folly, having made them synonyms for good and evil. No, wisdom is something else, having to do with study and learning and experience and sagacity and whatnot, and the argument that the lack of deeds diminishes wisdom over time does mean something.

The third verse is not about wisdom at all, though. Unless it is about wisdom by virtue of placing it with the other two, which is legitimate. But look at it: two are comparing wisdom (an assumed Good Thing) with another Good Thing, talking about people who are assumed to have both, but in different proportions. The last takes the assumed Good Thing (the Divine Delightability) and compares it with a thing of more questionable value (human delightability, albeit a sort of human spiritual delightability), and says that the two are found together or not at all.

That is, when we look at wisdom and good deeds, the text isn’t just saying that you should have both, which is obvious, and it isn’t saying you should have them in equal measure, it’s saying you should have more good deeds, or risk losing what wisdom you have. In the third verse, it is simply saying you should delight both your fellow man and your Creator, or risk doing neither. There’s no question of precedence involved.

Perhaps (now that I’ve written all that) this is because there is no question of precedence, but a more serious question of the nature of the thing itself. The precedence of human and Divine delightability is obvious. But unlike good deeds or fear of sin, there is no prima facie reason to think that him in whom the spirit of his fellow creatures take delight is beloved of the Divine. The other way, in fact. Or at least as plausibly, the prophet being without honor in his own proverbial. But what Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa seems to me to be saying is that (a) the does exist a thing that we can describe as spiritual delightability, human and Divine; (II) although we cannot tell for certain whether the Divine spirit actually delights in a particular person, we can probably tell whether a person is humanly delightable; and (3) the presence or absence of the observable, human, trait implies the presence or absence of the Divine trait. By what mechanism?

Can we say that the answer to this, problematic cap to the triple must be in the previous legs? The way that good deeds and fear of sin imply (or buttress) wisdom? How is this similar?

Jochanan ben Zakkai referred to wisdom and sinfearing as a craftsman’s knowledge and his tools. The fear of sin (or tool) is not well controlled without wisdom (or craft); wisdom is not productive without the fear of sin. Is it possible that the ability to delight other people is a tool? Similarly, Simeon ben Eleazar referred to wisdom and deeds as a horse and a bit. The horse is not well controlled (dangerous, even) without the bit, the bit is useless without the horse. Is it possible that the ability to delight other people is a bit? Is the issue one of controlling the spirit?

If so, we can take the person who does not worry about delighting the spirit of other people as uncontrolled. And then, as one loses (or never achieves) the control that comes from pleasing other people, what comes next is the arrogance to put yourself at the center of the universe. You may intend to put the Divine at the center, but if you lack our metaphorical bit or chisel, you will find that you have taken the center yourself. That pride, arrogance, an uncompromising temper, selfishness, bitterness and contempt have taken over your spirit, making it a thing in which the Divine can no longer delight.

If that is the teaching, it is a powerful warning. That would make the first two verses set-ups, the kind of Socratic trap where you agree to premises without really intending to, and then finding yourself at conclusions you didn’t expect. The spiritual unhealthiness of spiritual unpleasantness, the importance of people in the Divine conception, even the dependence of the Divine on human decisions about what pleases them spiritually. It’s easier, somehow, to accept that Hell is other people, than to accept that other people are a bit in your spiritual teeth. Isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.