« Poc Air Buille | Main | Rehearsal Report: first time's a charm »

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 21

This week we turn to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who is Ezra’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson; he is known as an aristocrat whose vast wealth was exceeded only by his immense generosity, and whose immense generosity was exceeded only by his great knowledge.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says: Where there is no Torah, there’s no right conduct, where there is no right conduct, there’s no Torah; where there is no wisdom, there’s no piety, where there is no piety, there’s no wisdom; where there is no perception, there’s no knowledge, where there’s no knowledge, there’s no perception; where there is no bread, there’s no torah, were there is no Torah, there’s no bread.

Four pairs. I hate pairs. Triples are good, pairs are bad. Hmph.

First pair is Torah and right conduct, or derech eretz, and the idea of the connection between them is not new. We talked about that in connection with Rabban Gamliel). Nothing really new here, except the negative phrasing. Where Rabban Gamliel suggests that that the pairing is fitting and is focused on the presence of both, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah is focused on the absence of both. I’ll get back to that.

Second pair is wisdom and piety, or hachmah and yir’ah. The latter is sometimes called fear or perhaps better reverence. Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin draws the connection between study of “the heavens and the earth and what is between them”, that is, secular study, and the fear of sin, as “when one perceives the genuine greatness of these things, he begins to understand ” the Divine Creator from the Creation.

Third pair is perception and knowledge. The difference between them is described by different commentators in different ways. The Machsor Vitry says that knowledge is what learned from another, whilst perception is your own ideas. The Meiri, on the other hand, says that knowledge is innate, whilst perception is learned. I have no idea, and probably have neither. Can we come back to this one?

Four and final pair is Torah and bread. Which is where we started, right? Only this time it’s bread, specifically, rather than derech eretz, which can mean either your occupation in the world or good conduct. If this is bread, and thus metaphorically breadwinning, then the other is conduct, yes? Or there is a double meaning, to make the whole verse circle around on itself.

So in the three verses that are reasonably clear, we have on the one hand secular aspects of life (conduct, wisdom and bread) and on the other religious (Torah, piety and, er, Torah). Does this help us differentiate perception and knowledge? Surely, here, one is meant to indicate something close to faith, the knowledge that the Divine exists and that Scripture is Scripture. A basic belief that is not based on evidence and is unshakeable. The other is the ability to judge evidence, to analyze, to perceive when the world is not how you think it is. The sage is here telling us that they are not opposed but complementary, both existing by virtue of the other’s existence. We start with an axiom or a bias. We also start with a world that exists independently of any axiom.

In other words, my belief in the Creator is not dependent on the Creation. But then neither is my belief in the Creation dependent on a belief in the Creator. I don’t think that’s what is meant by the if not x then not y formulation. I think it’s closer to this: if you reject [Torah, reverence, knowledge/axiomatic belief, Torah] in favor of [ethics, wisdom, perception, materialism], you are making a fundamental error. If, however, you are making the opposite choice, rejecting the pragmatic to embrace the spiritual, you are also making a fundamental error. Not in which one you are choosing. The error is choosing.

A world without bread would not be the world. A world without Torah would not be the world. If there is no Torah, there is no bread; if there is no bread, there is no Torah—not because you are too hungry to study or too sinful to be rewarded with food, but because without either of those things there is nothing.

I think that’s why Eleazar ben Azariah is repeating this idea in such a profoundly negative formulation. We cannot take the world a la carte. Rejection—of either side—is nihilism, the great shout of NO that keeps away both the Divine and the mundane, and yourself, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Could "perception" refer perhaps to "epiphany" or "insight?"


Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.