Pirke Avot chapter two, verse five: the boor and the worldly

Now, we go into the specifics. Again, this is my own translation, and not to be trusted.

He used to say: There is no boor who fears sin, and no pious man of the world; there is no shy student, and no angry teacher; there is no wise man who puts everything into business. And where there are no men, try to be a man.

The boor is in Hebrew bor, and is translated as a rude man, an empty-headed man, a course person, or a boor, of course. Like that. The man of the world is an am ha-aretz, a man of the earth perhaps. The term is complicated and has had several different connotations over time, as happens. In the tanach, it refers to the people who work the land, more or less; it’s meant to distinguish the average joe from the aristocracy and clerisy. If I’m using that word correctly. Anyway, in Hillel’s time, it seems to refer to a Jew who doesn’t entirely follow the commandments. Someone like me, in fact: a pork-chop eating, fringeless, beardless Jew who nonetheless goes to shul now and then and knows a little Hebrew and a little Scripture. Then it became a derisive term for an ignoramus, somebody who doesn’t know the Scripture or the commandments and therefore couldn’t keep them if he tried. And then, much later, it became a mocking term for someone (again, someone like me) who pretends to knowledge he doesn’t actually have.

I’m always cautious with attributing a criterion to a vague term that despite its vagueness has substantial and powerful connotations. It’s too easy to fall into a tautology: an am ha-aretz can’t be a chasid, of course, because really, if somebody is pious, then they aren’t worldly, or perhaps they aren’t really pious, either way you just weren’t looking at it right. Which would be fine if all we were doing was defining two sets with no overlap, but since the terms have power beyond that, it’s not fine.

As an example, although a contentious and probably distracting one: There are lots of people for whom the term Christian is incompatible with a variety of unpleasant behaviors; when faced with what is commonly called Christian support for a particular thing (broader definition of civil marriage, or narrower; the death penalty; abortion rights, or restrictions; social justice or socialism), there is often a declaration that those opposed to the speaker’s interpretation are not true Christians. Which, again, would be fine, if we were just using the word to mean adherence to a particular set of principles, applications and policy positions, and not, you know, eternal damnation or salvation. Among other things. Or for a less contentious example, the emergence of DINO and RINO for an elected official (usually) who is a member of their political party in name only, meaning, presumably, that Olympia Snow is not a true Republican or Max Baucus a true Democrat, defined as such by the speaker. In that case, however, there is (a) some value to the rhetorical battle over connotations of the Party names, and (2) a clear and objective definition that is unrelated to the battleground issues.

Well, and the rhetorical battle can have some value in any case, but also some cost, and you have to work it out. In this case, or these cases, we don’t want to circle around the definitions of boor and worldly if it drains the meaning out of the terms.

So, to go back. What is a boor? Not just an ignoramus, but an unfeeling person, a swinish person, a person who offends other people and perhaps most importantly a person who does not even aspire to higher things. In fact, the description of boorishness tends to include the word unrefined; there is certainly a whiff of the back country about it, an elitist sense, but still. The idea is not generally connected to sinfulness, as such, but bad manners and general grossness. So why can’t we imagine such a person fearing sin?

Well, and what happens to a person who fears sin? I’m using the term in the Jewish sense, by the way, not to indicate actual fright but to indicate an aversion to breaking the commandments, or to leaving the path of righteousness generally. When a person starts to pay attention to those issues, to elevate concern for ethical behavior over transient pleasures, doesn’t that begin to refine a person? When you fear sin, you pay attention to your own behavior and to that of other people as well. You moderate your behavior. You try to avoid offense to other people, because there are many sins that emerge from such offense, and you can avoid those sins by avoiding the offense. You think twice, perhaps, before speaking or acting. You perhaps follow the niceties of your social group, not because of the rules themselves, but out of respect for their traditions and their norms. You refine yourself.

And the am ha-aretz who wants to be a chasid? Well, in Hillel’s view (and at least to some extent in mine), piety leads to study, so that the study can lead to more piety. Rabbi Akiba is the example in the commentary of an am ha-aretz who becomes a chasid through study. And on the other side, within certain contexts, you can see that failure to practice the details of the commandments would interfere with any sort of deep knowledge. For instance, keeping kosher: I know some of the rules but most of them I never learned and I have forgotten most of the ones I did learn. Similarly with the liturgy; I wouldn’t get very far in studying without taking it on myself to practice it frequently, at least for a while.

Now, I don’t go as far as Hillel, or as a lot of people, particularly the Lubovitchers, in saying that a belief-driving study will necessarily lead to traditional observance. It may lead to innovation in one area, it may lead to rejection in another. But it’s clearly a path out of am ha-aretzdom, out of the worldly and into the life of the chasid.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Pirke Avot chapter two, verse five: the boor and the worldly

  1. Chris Cobb

    Nothing really to add to this, but I wanted to mention that both posts on this verse are great. Thank you for your translation and commentary!


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