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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse eleven

How about some nice nineteenth-century English for a change? Here’s Michael L. Rodkinson, actually from 1918, but still with that old-fashioned idea of making the text magnificent, and spelling that is good enough for his grandfather.

R. Jonathan said: “Whosoever fulfils the Law in poverty will at length fulfil it in wealth, and whosoever neglects the Law in wealth will at length neglect it in poverty.”

So, I have talked before—right?—about how this sort of thing is just empirically false. There are people who study and observe in poverty who never obtain material wealth, and there are plenty of wealthy scoffers who will die with plenty of toys. And the other way, of course, too. Plenty of wealthy scoffers will, indeed, lose their money, and plenty of wealthy pious men will lose their money, and sudden riches can come to the pious and the dishonest alike. Economic mobility and stability do not accurately correlate with piety and impiety, not in any combination or direction.

Of course, you can claim that R. Jonathan is not talking about material wealth, but rather spiritual wealth—if you are spiritually impoverished and yet work to fulfill the Law, you will receive spiritual gain from it. This is a nice retort to the Christian criticism of Judaism as a law-based unspiritual discipline: the Law is a necessary (but not sufficient) groundwork for spiritual uplift. At least for Jews. And for the second half, well, this is the retort to those who say they are spiritual, but not religious; people who ignore the underlying discipline of the Law when they feel spiritual will not have it to guide them in their moments of spiritual poverty (and we all do have them).

Alas, if you want to interpret the verse that way, you have to ignore its plain meaning, and impose a meaning that is not only clearly counter to the intent of the Sage, but is a muddled sort of a mess to look into with any rigor. How do you know who is spiritually wealthy? Can anyone claim spiritual wealth, and if my claim is countered by some Rabbi who says that their spiritual wealth is but shallow posturing, how can you decide who is right? In fact, does the concept of spiritual wealth and poverty have any meaning, other than the vaguest and most subjective sense of enlightenment?

Your Humble Blogger would much rather disagree with a specific and concrete interpretation of R. Jonathan’s verse than adopt a view that is so vague that it is unhelpful. I think that R. Jonathan really is saying what he is saying: all people who fulfill the Torah in poverty will fulfill it in wealth, and people who fail the Torah in wealth will fail it in poverty. And I think that he’s wrong. Just observably wrong, as if he had said that Mars goes around the Earth, or that you can tell if someone is intelligent by his hat size.

And, in addition, I think it’s probably not true that all people who are pious in poverty respond to riches by sticking to their piety. I don’t really know anyone personally who has gone from pious poverty to wealth of any kind, but certainly the literary landscape is strewn with those who fulfill the dictates of piety in poverty, but when thrust into wealth, fame and Society succumb to Temptation. And the opposite narrative, the wealthy sinner who is ruined and then finds spiritual wealth (there we are again) in religious observance, well, R. Jonathan is saying that doesn’t happen, that all who ignore the Torah in their days of wealth will continue to neglect it in poverty. And I suspect that is also observably false, but perhaps more importantly, I think that it is false as a teaching.

What do you do with these? I think I’ve written before about verses that are empirically false but are nonetheless good verses—sometimes it’s a good idea to act as if something were true, even knowing it isn’t. I don’t think this is one of those cases, though. I mean, yes, if you just take it as instruction to fulfil rather than ignore the Torah whatever your material circumstances, then it’s good advice, but then there’s no reason for this verse to exist, as there are plenty of others with that advice. Nor, honestly, do I think it’s good advice to act as if everyone who ignores the Torah in wealth will someday do so in poverty. Isn’t better to act as if a change of heart can come to anyone, even yourself? Furthermore, most people don’t think of themselves as either impoverished or wealthy, but reserve those terms for other people, which makes it weaker advice.

No, I don’t know what to do with this verse. I do find it worth mentioning, however, that the various sages and commentators are in agreement that neither extreme poverty nor extreme wealth lend themselves to fulfillment of the Torah. Poverty, of course, and the toil and exhaustion that comes from living hand to mouth, leaves little time and energy for study or for ritual. And the wealthy, in addition to the many opportunities for temptation, must spend time and energy maintaining their wealth. The responsibilities of great wealth and many dependents are not compatible with the contemplative life (say the Rabbis), and of course it is difficult to participate in judgment when you have conflicts of interest in many areas, as the wealthy are bound to do. Now, they warn that the Divine will not accept poverty or wealth as an excuse, and give examples of piety among the rich and the poor, but it is clear that the comfortable middle class is the aspiration of the Sages: enough, and enough to share, but not a burden to manage. A living.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.