Pirke Avot, verse five: the Wise

      2 Comments on Pirke Avot, verse five: the Wise

Oh, boy.

Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem said:—Let thy house be opened wide, and let the poor be thy household, and talk not overmuch with a woman.

He said it: in the case of his own wife, much more in the case of his companion’s wife.

Hence the Wise have said:—Everyone that talketh much with a woman causes evil to himself, and desists from words of Torah, and his end is he inherits Gehinnom.

This is pretty clear: women are evil and bad, and they are the reason why men (who are naturally pious) stray from the Lord.

And I don’t think it lets the Wise off the hook to acknowledge that they were living in a patriarchal society, one where such sentiments were within the mainstream. Such sentiments aren’t really out of our own mainstream, are they? I think that if you put the text into current language, and slipped it into some crap about Purity Balls and abstinence and Promise Keeping, very few people would do a double take. So if we’re going to criticize that crap, and I think we should, we should criticize the Wise.

This practice of criticizing the Wise is itself ancient and traditional. The tradition has encouraged different interpretations of the text to make it less horrible in implications. Do not gossip overmuch with women, some say. Or that Jose was talking about talking overmuch with women only in the context of hospitality and charity, and that the intention of the saying is that when seized with the impulse for hospitality or charity, one should not talk about it overmuch even with one’s spouse, because it introduces a constraint that diminishes the actual good works. These are problematic in themselves, largely because they retain the idea of women as interfering with male virtue. After all, it doesn’t warn a woman against discussing charitable actions with her husband overmuch. The assumptions about the role of women are there, and they are ugly.

What comes to YHB’s mind is that the cultural state of women in that community must have been such that women were not (on the whole) permitted (either legally or perhaps socially) to educate themselves either about the Torah or current events. Women who were kept, as it were, barefoot and pregnant were unlikely to be good conversational partners for a pious, learned and serious-minded Jew. Of course the stereotype would arise that their conversation would be gossip and frivolities. What else can an ignorant person talk about?

Let’s walk through the logical progression, here. Women are kept in ignorance, so they cannot discourse on Torah or other topics of positive import. Then, when they talk about trifles and rumors, they become traps for the pious, leading them astray from the path of the Torah, and ending in Divine Wrath. It seems to Your Humble Blogger that the Wise, for all their wisdom, missed on their phrasing here. It should read that Everyone that restricts the opportunities of women for piety and learning, and therefore for improving conversation rather than idle gossip, causes evil to himself, and desists from words of Torah, and his end is he inherits Gehinnom.

And the Gehinnom that he inherits is not only for himself but for the women as well. I would think that most people who inherit Gehinnom don’t keep it around but spread the ill around. From YHB’s point of view, living in a world where talking with half the population is evil is Gehinnom at best—and I’m in the lucky half.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

2 thoughts on “Pirke Avot, verse five: the Wise

  1. jaipur

    I liked what you had to say about Jose–keep a disciplined mind and a generous hospitality in your living style, avoid being tightfisted and a flibbertigibbet. That makes sense. There’s actually something interesting in phrasing it the way Jose does, because of the shock to the current Western way of life in the images he uses. Open your house wide? In this day of robbery and burglars and 24-7 alarms? Take in the poor? In this day of insanity and disease and con men? Talk not overmuch with a woman? Wait, maybe I can do that one. ๐Ÿ™‚ But why would I want to? Can you take incremental steps toward having your house wide, taking in the poor? Sure. What would incremental steps toward not talking overmuch with a woman look like? And I think you nailed the spirit of the text–avoid the gossip, the People magazine “news”, the who-slept-with-who discussions. If the woman is Paris Hilton or Britney Spears, you can certainly understand the injunction. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    With that in mind, the Wise is saying the same thing Jose did, just stronger–he’s laying out what happens when you get into the flibbertigibbet talk and stay there. Your mind strays from the ways of the Torah (and how!).

    Though I do disagree with him that that is all “women talk.” If he were writing now he’d probably say “Anyone who reads People magazine or watches E! on TV…” ๐Ÿ˜‰

    By the way, what is the meaning of Gehinnon in those statements? I was just listening to Real Live Preacher’s discourses on hell in the New Testament, and Jesus obviously refers to Gehenna a lot. Do you know what the Wise was referring to, metaphorically, and whether they thought of it as an eternal damnation spot like Hades, or just spot of “not being with God”, or what?


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