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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse eight

Here’s this weeks verse in a translation by Irving M. Bunim:

R. Yose said: Whoever honors the Torah will himself be honored by people; but whoever dishonors the Torah with himself be dishonored by people.

So. Is this true? What does it mean if it is true? Should we honor the Torah in order to be honored by our peers, and if so, isn’t that making a crown for self-exaltation? Can we argue backward that whoever is honored by people must therefore be honoring the Torah, whether we observe that directly or not?

No. This is clearly not a verse that describes the world accurately, on the face of it. Lots of people dishonor the Torah and are honored by people, at least for a time. And if we don’t accept for a time, then can we not accept that I may sometimes act in a way that honors the Torah and sometimes in a way that dishonors it? Should I take that an act I may have done when I was twenty, or fourteen, or forty which is a shanda fur de goyim, and has led to my public dishonor, cannot be overwhelmed by further acts and years of honoring the Torah? Even more so, what if I have so far gotten away with having dishonored the Torah in my youth, and not suffered the public dishonor of my peers? Am I due for a fall? If so, is there any point in trying to reform?

Clearly, all of these questions must come from reading the verse wrong. Let’s start all over again, shall we?

Rabbi Yose ben Chalafta was one of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, but the list of people he is said to have studied with includes Rabbi Judah ben Baba, Rabban Gamliel II (the grandson of Rabban Gamliel), Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Jochanan ben Nuri, and of course, his father, Rabbi Chalafta. He was brought up into scholarship. His teachings tend to emphasis agreement over disagreement, and the reconciling of contradiction over simply ruling for one side over the other. The impression that I get is of a somewhat conflict-averse guy who was intimately familiar with the divisions between scholars.

He lived through the Destruction and expulsion; he lived through his own home town being destroyed and rebuilt. Again, I’m just making stuff up here, but I would guess that his own history led him to think that scholarly arguments were a waste of time and energy, a squandering of a very fragile existence. But where that might have led a man to a kind of nihilism that eschewed things of this world, instead Rabbi Yose seems to have grown to value people, and to value the respect for people, the thing that makes people treat each other with dignity. To find that a respect for each other is a respect for the Divine, either the Divine within each other (as we are made in the Image) or simply for each other as creations of the Creator.

Now, what did he say? Whoever honors the Torah will himself be honored by people; but whoever dishonors the Torah with himself be dishonored by people. Only that isn’t quite right, or at least it doesn’t have the right connotations. We read that col ham’chabeyr et ha-Torah, all [people] [who] do honor to the Torah, gufo m’chubeyr al ha-briyot. That is, instead of saying that all [people] will do honor to him, we say— something not quite parallel to that. First of all, we flip the thing so that it is in what I think is the passive voice: instead of people doing honor to him, he is honored by people. And when I say he, Rabbi Yose does not use the pronoun, he uses gufo, which is a person specifically in the sense of a person’s body, a corporeal person. That person is done honor by ha-briyot, which is a way of saying everybody that derives from what you might call the born. The briyot are man born of woman, if you will, although it is evidently sometimes extended to animals as well, all creatures that have ever been born. When he says of the scholar (or other person who honors the Torah) that gufo m’chubeyr al ha-briyot, he is, yes, saying that people will honor that scholar, but in a way that emphasis the corporeality of the honorer and the honoree. It is not the spirit of the pious person that we honor, but the person him (or her) self. It is not our spirits that honor him (or her), but our persons, our selves.

Where I’m going with this. There is a tendency, among religious folk of various stripes, to divide the mind and the body. I don’t hold with that at all, and most (but not all) of Jewish tradition is with me on that one. I am not someone separate from my body; I am who I am, in part, because of the experiences I have had in and with my body. If I were unusually tall (to take one example), I would have had different experiences all my life, standing in lines, walking into rooms, dancing, buying clothes, whatever. Those experiences feed in to who you are in the same way as the books you read or the games you played. The self is part of the body and the body is part of the self; to describe a soul that is exempt from all that the body experiences is to describe something not human, not fully partaking in the Creation.

To take a point from Irving Bunin, when a scholar enters a room and we rise in respect (if we are, with Mr. Bunin, in that tradition that does so), do we stand before his wisdom? No. We stand before his body. Before his person. Indistinguishable. This means that if we want to honor a person who has done honor to the Torah, to fulfill the verse, we need to honor her as a person. A full person. And people, you know, are notoriously inconsistent.

Now we are getting to some answers to my earlier questions, yes? Is the verse true? It is not true as an observation, it is true as an obligation. Should we honor the Torah in order to be honored by our peers? Well, it isn’t great to do that, but it is very human. What if we have done some honor and some dishonor? That, too, is what people are like. Both the people (bodies) who are the object of the honor and the people (born) who are the ones who do the honor to them. When Rabbi Yose flips the verse around, we can read that we are all, all of us who have been born, all of us with bodies, both capable of honoring the Torah, capable of deserving honor from each other, capable of giving honor to each other, capable of treating each other as people, vulnerable, susceptible, mortal. As when the rebellion was put down, not only was the Temple destroyed but (of course) people were killed in the thousands, sages and young idiots, fighters and followers and innocent bystanders. Born and bodied and fully human, containing the possibility for honoring and being honored, containing the possibility of fulfilling the Torah or dishonoring it: and then, dead.

That is what I hear behind Rabbi Yose’s language. The harrowing of his own hell, the destruction of his home, and then, then, the life on the other side, and the importance of respecting it, while it is alive.

It is not in heaven, it is not beyond the sea, it is in your mouth, in your heart—in your body, in fact. Both the honoring and the deserving.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I'm late on this one, but this is very nicely done.

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