Pirke Avot: before we begin

      8 Comments on Pirke Avot: before we begin
All Israel have a portion in the world to come; as it is said and thy people shall all be righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified (Isaiah 60:21).

Well, and I suppose YHB will give a try to leading a study of Pirke Avot here on this Tohu Bohu. We’ll see how it goes. Before we begin, I want to lay out a few of my hopes and wishes, just to get things started.

First of all, I hope that every Gentle Reader will feel free to comment on any and all of these passages. Actually, I hope that y’all will feel tremendous social pressure to comment on the passages. Be one of us! One of us! I’d particularly like GRs to chime in with connections between the saying under discussion and sayings from sages, philosophers and theologians from other places, times and traditions. Or with connections to your own life.

Second, I hope that GRs will attempt to sympathize with the sages as they think about their words. I don’t want everybody to agree with everything we read (the sages certainly don’t want that, nor do they agree with each other very often), but rather than dismissing the saying entirely attacking it, I’d like us to try to find use in it. Yes, some of them will be wrongheaded, and the obvious (and probably correct) response is defensiveness, but that’s not the only response, and remember: you are alive, and they are dead, so you are already winning.

Third, I hope y’all will tell me if I’m going too slow. I am inclined for now to take only a verse or two at a time, and try to go into each one as deeply as we care to at the time, without feeling like we have to move on. I have no sense of how often I will write. There are something like 120 total verses (in six chapters); if I do two or three verses a week, and don’t miss many weeks, it’ll be a year’s work or so. If it gets to the point where you are skipping over the Pirke Avot posts, or where you are thinking why doesn’t he finish those up and write about something more interesting, I hope you’ll let me know.

OK, three is probably a good number to go on with. We’ll be doing a lot of threes, here, if we’re going to be serious about this.

Now, as for the quote up at the top: when we read the Pirke Avot in shul, as it is part of the liturgy between Passover and Shavuout, we preface each chapter with the quote I quoted above, which comes from Sanhedrin 10:1, except that it was probably a later addition. The context there is a list of those who do not have a portion of the world to come, which begins with people who deny the Scripture and goes on to include, well, just about everybody.

This is the thing: there’s this tremendously wonderful idea: all Israel—all has a portion in the world to come. Not the righteous few, not the remnant, not the powerful or the observant or the Rabbis or the Cohens, but all Israel. And then we have to start ruling people out. I suppose it’s the way things are, and it’s not like I’m all that focused on the world to come anyway, but I like the statement as it stands up there, stripped of its context, bold and outrageous. It’s a good introduction to our study this tractate, too, since it has both the compassionate nature and the stringent context, a hint at the hidden push and pull of the sages.

We’ll get to a famous quote, later, from a sage who said to keep two pieces of paper in your pockets. On one side, keep in your pocket a slip of paper that reads remember that for you, the entire universe was created. In the other, keep a slip that reads remember you are dust, you came from dust, and you will return to dust. The question is when you take them out and look at them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

8 thoughts on “Pirke Avot: before we begin

  1. Vardibidian

    When I was talking about going too slow in my number three up there, this is what I was on about.

    I broke out the first sentence of the first verse as one note, and then the three sayings in the note got one note for the first, one for the second, and one for the third, all in addition to this one here. We don’t have threaded comments or anything (I don’t really like threaded comments, generally) so that was my solution for trying to keep the conversation (none of which may occur, but I am keeping my proverbials crossed) easy to join. And I didn’t even pose discussion questions. Should I pose discussion questions? Discuss.


  2. Jacob

    Um, I like the idea of breaking out topics, but in terms of making the conversation easy to join, would you mind taking a step back and explaining what Pirke Avot is? I mean, I looked it up, so I know it’s part of the Mishnah, but that doesn’t help me a whole lot.

    My major association with all this stuff is the scenes in Chaim Potok when they study Torah, from which I gather that they read old books and try to understand them, in part, by looking at slightly less old books. That’s really as far as I can go, I’m afraid. It would help me if I knew more about what the Mishnah is, and where it comes from, and what it’s used for, and what is important about Pirke Avot as part of it, etc. Thank you.

  3. Matt Hulan

    So, what does Israel consist of? Define Israel for me, s’il vous plait. The 12 Tribes? The Diaspora? Israel the nation-state (was Israel a state at the time of Isaiah, or were they already wandering)?


  4. Kendra

    I feel both desire and social pressure to contribute, but also competing pressure to get back to grading papers and writing Thank You notes. If I don’t comment, take it as a sign that the latter pressures have won, not that I’m not reading and enjoying.

    All Israel — that is hot stuff. I’ve picked up from Shaye Cohen and Daniel Boyarin that the early rabbinic movement flirts with notions of in and out that closely parallel the evolving Christian discourse of orthodoxy, but then sharply rejects such an approach. There are costs either way, but in this restless moment in Christian history, where impulses for both reunion and separation seem powerfully attractive, the “all Israel” approach seems brave and difficult.

  5. Vardibidian

    Jacob—Briefly and inaccurately—the Mishnah is a set of rulings on all aspects of life, sometimes including the arguments and the dissenting opinions. It is compiled after the destruction of the Temple (although the rulings are largely from Temple times, or at least are claimed to be) and forms the basis for Rabbinic/Diaspora Judaism. The Talmud is a set of discussions about those rulings, together with lots of digressions and arguments. Traditionally, both the Mishnah and Talmud are considered to be Scripture, in the sense that they are the product of Divine Revelation at Sinai, handed down through the generations as Oral Law. So study of the Mishnah is required for being a teacher or a judge, that is, a Rabbi.

    There are two things about Pirke Avot that set it apart. First, it doesn’t deal (directly) with regulations and rulings, but with general principles. It isn’t an ethics in the sense of being a complete and coherent structure for ethical decisions, but is a collection of sayings, a wisdom book. As such, much of it speaks to the layman or even the unbeliever, who might not be interested in discussions of reparations for borrowed cattle that fall sick, and who almost certainly don’t have the background to follow those discussions anyway.

    Secondly, Avot is the only tractate that is part of the traditional liturgy. Of course, that’s connected with the first thing; there wouldn’t be much point in reciting out of Moed Katan about whether it is allowable to catch field mice on minor holidays in cornfields or in orchards, and by what methods. But by making Pirke Avot part of the annual cycle, the Rabbis were saying that these were for everybody to think about, not just a reference for Rabbis to go to when asked difficult questions.

    Is that sufficient to go on with? I’d be happy to write at more length (surprise!), if that would be helpful, but I don’t want to be too boring with the history and the field mice and all.

    Matt—I think the definition of all Israel is fluid. The phrase is added to the older Isaiah quote by Rabbis when the geographic region of Israel is politically a province of Rome. The Rabbis who codify the text are writing after the destruction of the Temple (effectively at the beginning of the Diaspora) but attribute the saying to a pre-Diaspora time when Israel was a province with some autonomy and a working Temple system, a central authority in Jerusalem and a widespread laity. What I’m saying is, at the time they were saying it, the idea was fairly fluid, but the phrasing appears to be making the claim that Jews in Rome or Antioch had a portion in the world to come. But your questions were discussed, and different people had different answers. Rabbi Akiva said that anyone who read books in Greek gave up his share in the world to come, and therefore presumably put himself outside all Israel; other sages disagreed.

    Kendra—I understand, believe me, that the papers don’t grade themselves while you enjoy yourself. But when you have a moment, your comments valued above rubies here at the Tohu Bohu.


  6. Dan P

    In the spirit of a follow-up to Matt’s question, what’s your sense of the definitions (or implications, if definitions are in short supply) of the land and inherit … forever?

  7. Vardibidian

    Dan—sure, give me hard ones. For YHB, and I want to be as clear as possible that this is not dogma nor approved rabbinical interpretation, when I say things like that, I am talking about (a) the world to come/heavenly Jerusalem, as identified by the forever part. Or that’s what I think at the moment.

    I think there is also a contingency involved: we (that is, all the people Israel) have a portion in the world to come in the same way that we are all righteous, that is, in the desire of the Divine. If we fulfill that desire, then we inherit the land forever (that is to say, in the endtime) to the greater glory of the Divine, and obtain our portion in the land to come. How, then, can we claim that inheritance? By fulfilling the work of the hands of the Divine.

    That’s my take, at least as you’ve forced me to articulate it, because I couldn’t have done so yesterday (and might be able to improve it tomorrow) (well, Thursday, say).


  8. Michael

    The translation “have a portion” allows what to me is a key tenet of Judaism: that Judaism is not the only righteous path. We do not inherit the whole world to come, because it is not ours alone.


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