Pirke Avot, verse four: The First Yose

      3 Comments on Pirke Avot, verse four: The First Yose

This is the fourth week we’ve met to talk about Pirke Avot, and we’ve had a lot of interesting discussion so far about the sayings themselves, the authority of the sages (individually and collectively), and the nature of Scripture. I’ve been really enjoying it. This week we move on from the generations in which the tradition is said to be held by a single sage to the first of five generations in which there are a pair of sages listed. It is surmised that in these generations there was a division in duties between the parliamentary Speaker and the Chief Justice, and that the two Rabbis named held those two posts. The analogy is not intended to be exact, by the way, but there you are, analogies seldom are. Our first pair are both called Yose (pronounced yo as in adrian say as in anything); this is a diminutive form of Joseph and is spelled in a variety of ways in English, from José to Yossei. Today I’ll use the Jacob Neusner translation of the verse, just for kicks:

Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received [the Torah] from them. Yose ben Yoezer says:
Let your house be a gathering place for sages.
And wallow in the dust of their feet,
And drink in their words with gusto.

I haven’t been pointing out (I think) that for the most part, the tradition is not handed down from father to son, but from teacher to student. In our first four verses, this is the second time that we have mentioned the relationship between teacher and student, and we have yet to talk about parents and children. In part, that is because the sayings are compiled for an audience of rabbis, that is, of teachers and judges. On the other hand, there is a lot of advice about personal lives, so a comment about filial or fraternal relationships would not seem out of place. Instead, we repeatedly focus on teachers and students. I think that focus is very important for the Avot. For all that there is a tradition of genetic Judaism, where the discovery of a maternal grandmother you have never met having been born to Jewish parents makes you suddenly a Jew, the tradition also has this emphasis on passing the tradition not from father to son but from teacher to student. That goes back to the Judges and Kings, of course: Eli doesn’t pass his authority to his sons but to Samuel; Samuel passes his authority not to his sons but to Saul; Saul passes his authority not to his son but to David. And whoever Yoezer was, it’s his son Yose that gets the tradition, and not from him but from Antigonos. And Yose himself (according to Chapter 8 of Bava Batra), had a son with bad habits, who not only does not appear in the line of succession in our text, but is struck out of Yose’s will. On the other hand, he bought a fish with a pearl in it, so there you are.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “Pirke Avot, verse four: The First Yose

  1. fran

    For a moment though, can we also consider that the sages are being welcomed into the house? There is continually a removal of women from these moments. I know, I know, it’s the sayings of the Fathers. I know too that there is a sense in which teaching Torah and building a hedge is meant to be about the human being. But I think somewhere we–as modern readers of the text–need to acknowledge that absence. That the (absent) women of the Mishnah create a space where the discussion of Torah not only happens but is welcomed in.

    From my tradition, it is Mary AND Martha listening to Jesus teach. It evokes for me the complicated space of daily existence: women were expected to serve meals and clean up the dust that those sages brought in and yet there is also a longing for it in our minds and hearts. It seems to me if I want the wisdom of these teachers to speak to my daughter, I must also teach her that she creates a space for the Torah in every part of her being, even when she is excluded from the words.

  2. Michael

    Growing up in a shul with orthodox roots that eventually became mostly egalitarian, I heard as many justifications for the exclusion of women in the text as there were approaches to the exclusion of women in contemporary practice. The one that always bothered me the most was the claim that women were privileged not to have these obligations because their obligation to family was more important.

    When men write the story on their own, they paint themselves as the only important characters and the story is incomplete. When men study the story on their own, their understanding is incomplete, and how much more so when the story itself is incomplete.

    Our obligation in each generation is to study the Torah because that is how we make it fresh, because that is how we adapt it to our times, because that is how we improve ourselves. And the exclusion of women is an enormous warning sign to us that the Torah is incomplete, so our obligation in each generation is to study the Torah because our study can never be completed.

  3. Vardibidian

    I apologize; I think it is very important to keep pointing out the silent assumption of women’s role in supporting scholarship. I tend to expect the sages to alternate between ignoring women and traducing them, because, you know, I’ve read this stuff before and that’s pretty much how it is. Which means I forget, when discussing the text out in public like this, that I should make it clear that this is a serious flaw with the text and with our tradition.

    I do like Michael’s take. The particular flaw (which plays out in a variety of ways, as we will see) is so glaringly obvious to us now that it acts as a sort of warning sign that we can’t rest on the work of the tradition and the sages. The sage’s blindness to women is obvious to us now–what about their blindness to other conditions and traditions? What about our own blindness? We can take this flaw in the text as a reminder and goad, rather than responding with either sneers or outrage.

    Although the occasional sneer would probably be good, too.



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