a reading of Pirkei Avot for the twenty-first century

Esther Cameron, Ph.D., J.D.

I. Introduction

Tractate Avot ("Fathers" or "Principles") of the Mishnah, commonly referred to as Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), is the central statement of the values of rabbinic Judaism.  It is the one large chunk of Talmud found in the prayerbook, where the rabbis placed it for Shabbat afternoon study.  Yet this text that "gets smarter with the years," in the words of Rabbi Kenneth Katz, is all too often passed over by Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike.   The following commentary, written not by a traditional Torah scholar but by a lay reader who has long found Pirkei Avot a copious source of food for thought, hopes to make a small contribution toward moving this text back into the center of discussion.

Rabbi Katz's "standard disclaimer" in Torah study applies here as well as ever, in that we are discussing a text simultaneously from three standpoints: its meaning to its original readers, its meaning to later generations of commentators, and its direct meaning to us.  However, I will be concentrating here on the two ends of the time-spectrum, from a sense that Pirkei Avot was drawn up at a moment - the birth of Diaspora Judaism from the last great crisis of the Second Temple era - in some ways not unlike our own.

In the present moment, September 2004 (Elul 5764), the long-term crisis engendered in Diaspora Judaism by events such as the Enlightenment, the Shoah, and the perilous enterprise of Zionism is highlighted by the Beer Sheva bombings, the Beslan massacre, the relentless acrimony of the current Presidential election campaign.  But as the Baal Shem Tov once said, "evil is the throne of good."  In biological, spiritual or political life, a threat to equilibrium is often followed by the emergence of new order. The ancient transition of Earth's atmosphere from methane to corrosive oxygen first led to massive extinctions, and then paved the way for the emergence of animal life.  Each of us can recall some creative moment in his or her own existence, when the soul, wrestling with a challenge, brought forth a resolution that seemed like a kind of miracle.  The "more perfect union" of the U.S. Constitution, as told in Catherine Drinker Bowen’s "Miracle at Philadelphia," took shape out of clashing agendas and mutual suspicion at a time when the existence of the newborn nation was called into question.

Pirkei Avot, as a document of what was then a new order of Judaism, represents a profounder and more far-reaching miracle than the Constitution.  Whereas the Constitution regulates only the external relations of parties who deal at arms' length with one another, Pirkei Avot is suffused with the premise of a responsible community.  By addressing the ethical level as well as the procedural, Pirkei Avot has managed to last for far longer than the Constitution. Thus, Pirkei Avot may have lessons for us not only as Jews, but also as citizens of modern democracy.

A brief note on terminology: Avot forms part of the Mishnah, the earliest attempt at redaction of the "oral Torah."  (The next layer, the record of rabbinic discussions on the Mishnah, was written down several centuries later and is known as the Gemara; both together constitute the Talmud.) The Mishnah is divided into six "orders," and these, in turn, into "tractates," of which Pirkei Avot is one.  Each tractate, in turn, consists of chapters which are divided into numbered sentences or paragraphs, each of which is referred to as a mishnah (plural: mishnayot).  The tractate known as Avot is found in the order Nezikin ("damages"), the rabbinic code of law on property disputes.

Some of the mishnayot set standards for judges.  Scholars of the Talmudic community served as its judges and, through case law, de facto legislators.  By their conduct, they were expected to exemplify Torah values.  In the introduction to the Metsudah Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Avrohom Davis cites the Maharal of Prague's reason for the inclusion of Avot in Nezikin: "Without the self-control of each individual, there can be no effective system of law and order in the community."  The rule of law was based on shared standards, and while the administration of law was in the hands of "specialists" -- rabbinic judges -- the layman was expected to learn as much of the law as possible.   In contrast, I am just now reading a book on the Constitution (Michael Kammen, A Machine That Would Go of Itself), which points out that while many Americans have a kind of faith in the Constitution, a detailed knowledge of what the Constitution actually provides is far less widespread.

While many of the mishnayot are quoted independently, these essays will view the tractate as a unified work, as the ground-plan for a certain kind of community.  Questions to keep in mind are: What kind of world were the sages of "Avot" trying to make? What did they ask of each individual?  What sacrifices did this vision of the world require?  Finally, in brackets, the reader will find a number of more personal "reflections" by the present reader (20th-21st century, female, poet, 'sixties survivor...).

The translation used here for the most part follows that of Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, whose Pirkei Avot commentary may be found at  This is a commentary written from within the Orthodox community today, and I have incorporated a few of its deep and beautiful observations.   (I have also imitated his practice of assigning my own title to each mishnah, as a guide to what is emphasized in the comments.)  I have also consulted Judah Goldin's The Living Talmud and the Metsudah Pirkei Avot; the quotations from earlier commentaries are mostly from these two books.   Michael Gelman’s editorial assistance, which has resulted in greater clarity, is thankfully acknowledged.

II. Getting Started

At traditional study sessions, each chapter of Avot is prefaced by reciting a passage from Tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishnah: "ALL ISRAEL HAVE A SHARE IN THE WORLD TO COME, AS IT IS SAID: "AND ALL YOUR PEOPLE WILL BE RIGHTEOUS; THEY WILL INHERIT THE LAND FOREVER; THEY ARE MY PLANTS, THE WORK OF MY HANDS, WHEREIN I GLORY" [Isaiah 60:21]

This traditional "kavvanah," or devotional preparation, already contains many of the values of Avot, beginning with the dual meaning of the opening words: "kol Israel" may mean either "all Israel" or "every Jew." Avot regards the individual the individual as innately identified with the community.  Rather than presume an adversarial reaction between individual and community, the Mishnaic sages see each individual as a microcosm of of the community.  It then follows that, as the community is to be respected, so each individual member is to be respected, and vice versa.

In Mishnaic times, the normative beliefs of nascent rabbinic Judaism (albeit with important dissenting views) had come to include resurrection of the dead and perfection of the world under Messianic rule.  It is to life in this perfected world that the phrase "a share in the world to come" is traditionally taken to refer.  About the fate of the soul pending the resurrection there is a broader diversity of views (although one commonly held view is that the souls of the righteous await the Resurrection in Gan Eden, or Paradise).  Importantly, the ideal proposed by rabbinic Judaism is not "salvation" of the individual soul apart from the repair of the world, but for the individual to have a "share" in the perfected future world.

Torah study is understood as a preparation for this future.  Just as everyone has a share in the coming world, so the study of Torah should be accessible to all, from the erudite judge to the time-pressed day laborer.  All may take part in this process of learning and teaching in preparation for the Coming World.

The Mishnaic sages did not envision the world as a "democracy" but as a community that follows the directives of recognized scholars.  Yet one could argue that the Torah world is a more truly representative society than one where leadership on the basis of shared leadership often seems to have given way to manipulation by "hidden persuaders," where a sort of anti-Torah has been created, aimed at making not free and conscious citizens but impulse-driven consumers.

Chapter 1, Mishnah 1: The Internal History of Avot

Like the written Torah, Pirkei Avot begins by telling the history of the world.  Here, history begins not with the creation of the physical universe, but with the creation of the moral universe, with the encounter at Sinai.


Every new vision reshapes the past as well as the future, and the historical perspective offered here is somewhat different from that of the Biblical narratives.

First, the genealogy is spiritual rather than physical.  The rabbis were largely responsible for the development in Jewish tradition of the analogy, introduced by the prophets, between the teacher-pupil and the parent-child relationships.  Posterity is thus created not only by procreation, but by teaching.

Second, the nature of the continuity depicted is different.  In the chronology of Tanakh the links in the chain of transmission often appear at best loosely connected.  Both sources agree that Moshe transmitted Torah to Yehoshua, but transmission to the elders is at best implied by the statement that "the people served the LORD all the days of Yehoshua, and all the days of the elders that outlined outlived Yehosua, who had seen all the great work of the LORD, that he did for Yisrael." (Joshua 24:31, Judges 2:7)  As to transmission from the elders to the prophets, the Biblical text is silent; in fact, according to Judges 2:10, "there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the work which he had done for Yisra'el."  As a punishment for this lapse from tradition and into apostasy, the people were plagued with marauders.  "Nevertheless the LORD raised up judges, who saved them from the hand of their plunderers." (Judges 2:16)  Unless the judges are included among the "elders," they are unmentioned by the spiritual genealogy of Avot.   These charismatic leaders, each "raised up" by G-d as if from the soil of the Promised Land, appear detached both from the chain of tradition and from one other, and hence may have been problematic to the Rabbis.  Among the prophets, the pupil-teacher relationship – that of Elijah and Elisha – appears the exception that proves the rule: rule: Natan does not refer to Shmuel, nor Yeshayahu to Amos, nor Yirmiyahu to Yeshayahu, nor Yechezkel to Yirmiyahu, nor Zecharyah to Yechezkel.   As the judges arose one by one against a background of national crisis, the prophets seem to arise one by one against a background of Torah belief.  They derive their authority not from their immediate predecessors, but by direct reference to the Torah of Moshe and from the immediacy of the Divine presence in the land.

According to the rabbis, this immediacy was lost shortly after the rebuilding of the Temple.   Even while the Jewish people yet dwelt on their land, it was said that prophecy had fallen silent.  Students of the Second Temple period have speculated as to the reasons.   One possible explanation is that prophecy in the First Temple period had sometimes proven uncertain and divisive.   That opening line, "Thus saith the LORD," could introduce very different, sometimes opposing views. Furthermore, the rebuilding of the Temple fell short of the Messianic prophecies stirred up by the return from the Babylonian exile.   The new Temple was on a smaller scale than the old; worse still, the Holy of Holies no longer contained the Ark of the Covenant.  G-d was not present in the Temple in the same way.   In addition, the new Jewish commonwealth was not an independent state but a Persian protectorate, and was soon overrun by Hellenistic conquerors.   Under these conditions, the prophetic inspiration flared out in "apocalyptic" writings, predicting that G-d would soon destroy the corrupt order of this world and replace it with a better one.   If everything would shortly be swept away anyhow, the pursuit of the moral life might easily begin to lose its attractiveness!   Thus, prophecy had outlived its usefulness.   According to Rabbinic tradition, the last prophets were part of the Great Assembly originally convened by Ezra.   But the Great Assembly, the precursor of the Talmudic academies, established a new vision as a substitute for prophetic immediacy.

In place of the prophetic immediacy, the direct claim of Divine authority, the rabbis claimed that their authority could be traced back to a point in the past when immediacy existed – to the encounter between G-d and Israel at Sinai.  As with secular rules of evidence, a "chain of custody" is established in order to substantiate the authenticity of the thing transmitted.  The rabbis thus see the prophets not as recipients of direct revelation but as participants in the transmission of Oral Law originally received, simultaneously with the tablets of the Written Law, by Moshe Rabbeinu on Mt. Sinai.  In the Rabbis’ view, the Oral Law contains, by implication, every Torah discussion and decision by subsequent generations!

A corollary of this view is the "decline of generations" (yeridat ha-dorot), the belief that each generation is farther away from the source of truth than the last.  Aficionados of Western literary criticism may find a secular parallel in Harold Bloom's concept of "belatedness," as expounded in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading.  But though yeridat ha-dorot sounds like a kind of spiritual entropy, in the rabbinic tradition this concept serves to encourage attention to and respect for parents and teachers, thereby facilitating the transmission of Torah.  As one Torah scholar is said to have told a prospective student: "You think that man was descended from the apes, and therefore you don't respect your father, who was closer to the monkeys than you are.  I, however, believe that my teacher was closer to Moshe Rabbeinu than I am, and thus I respect him."  As a pedagogical device yeridat ha-dorot encourages the student to resist entropic time through adherence to a tradition brought down from a timeless moment.  Occasionally, too, it is pointed out that if each generation is further from Sinai, it is also closer to Mashiach!

To the "men of the Great Assembly," the immediate sources of authority for rabbinic Judaism, three imperatives are ascribed: "Be deliberate (or: moderate [matun]) in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah."

The first imperative marks the break between rabbinic Judaism and prophecy.  The prophets had handed down categorical – and sometimes conflicting – judgments in the name of G-d.  The apocalyptic writers, making similar claims of authority, had reveled in fantasies about the destruction of the world and its evils.  The rabbis adopted some of the apocalyptic beliefs -- the coming of Maschiach, the resurrection of the dead -- but refrained from committing themselves to a timetable.  Instead, they concentrated on how people should live in the meantime. The root of "matun" (moderate, deliberate) means "wait."  Instead of immediate certainty, the rabbinic approach takes time for reasoning, weighing of evidence, and debate.

The second imperative establishes the responsibility of the sage not only to learn and to strive for spiritual perfection, but also to teach.  Like the first humans, the heirs of the Great Assembly were commanded to "reproduce and multiply" -- but by means of the word, not only the gene! In the Second Temple period this responsibility seems to have extended beyond the teaching of Torah to Jews, to the welcoming or even the active pursuit of converts.  Converts were numerous at that time; two of the sages quoted in Pirkei Avot are said to have been converts.

The third imperative of the Men of the Great Assembly -- "Make a fence around the Torah" – is most widely understood as the making of "precautionary" rules to reduce the likelihood of the Torah's rules being violated.  These precautionary rules have lesser sanctity than the Torah's rules, but they are no less binding on the practitioner.   Thus, on Shabbat one may not drive in a nail, as this constitutes "work," and one may not pick up a hammer, as this could lead to driving in a nail.   The first is a prohibition from the written Torah (mi-de-oraita), while the second is a rabbinic prohibition (mi-de-rabbanan).  Through the addition of layers of such "precautions" around the commandments of the written Torah, the system of halakha took shape.

The underlying metaphor of this first Mishna is of the Torah as an object entrusted to the Jewish people for safekeeping:  Each generation hands scrupulously protects it in anticipation of handing it down to the next.

[Reflection:  Today, the activity of "making a fence around the Torah" still goes on, as the advances of technology constantly make new halakhic decisions necessary.  Advances in technology are only one example of the secular world's influence, even and perhaps especially in Israel, on Jewish practice of the commandments.  As Jews inevitably interact with the secular world and its rules, there will always be the opportunity to try and affect those rules in order to promote practice of the commandments -- from obtaining permission to block off a street on Shabbat, to proposing and advocating laws that would preserve the environment, level the economic playing field for all members of society, raise the level of cultural and commercial discourse in society at large.  All of these things ultimately affect the ability of Jews to perform the commandments.  In a world of permeable boundaries, it is impossible even in Israel, let alone in the Diaspora, to escape the influence of the larger world.  Ultimately, in order to have a positive effect on the larger world and avoid being misunderstood as a selfish cabal of "meddlers," the Jewish community must resume, in some fashion, the enterprise of outreach that was attenuated at the end of the Second Temple period.  There is great need to build bridges between the Jewish community and outsiders of good will.  Pirkei Avot, as a key source-text of the values of rabbinic Judaism, represents an important resource in communicating to others about where, as adherents to the Jewish tradition, we are "coming from."]

 Chapter 1, Mishnah 2: The Maintenance of the World


This mishnah presents another triad, enumerating three central values of the community. Here, however, the mode of metaphysical statement rather than the imperative mode is used.  The world "stands" on three things, like the three legs of a stool.  But what is meant by the "world"? In our interpretive structure so far, we would first take this to mean the social world, the community. But a persistent theme of rabbinic literature is that, without the activity of the righteous, the physical universe itself would collapse. ( To "stand" in Hebrew often means "to endure, to persist.")  Amid the current environmental crisis, we see that the health of the physical world depends on humans' ability to make wise decisions, not only as individuals but as a society.

The three "things" on which the world stands are not just values, or static "pillars," but constant activities.  Torah is not only a body of knowledge but also the activities of learning and teaching it.  A copy of the Talmud burned into an aluminum disc and shot out into space (as it were, "in a vacuum") would do little to assure the continued existence of the universe.  A parable tells of about a king who obtained a Torah scroll and then, saying that now he had the books he did not need Torah scholars, proceeded to kill all the scholars he could lay hands on.  But the books, of course, were meaningless apart from the lives of those who taught them.  Moreover, even the activity of Torah does not stand alone.  It must be coordinated with "service" and "acts of kindness."

On "acts of kindness" Rabbi Rosenfeld has a beautiful paragraph:

"G-d did not just create x billion individuals, commanding each of them to serve G-d in a vacuum. He did not create 5 billion mazes, promising each little human a piece of cheese for getting to the end. G-d created an entire world, in which individuals are interconnected - in families, communities, nations, and societies - and must interact with one another. This too is a part of man's cosmic mission. Spirituality does not lie in man's relationship with G-d alone. It resides in his behavior towards his fellow man as well. By caring for one another, by building meaningful relationships and harmonious societies, we serve G-d through our interactions within the world. Further, we create a world of peace and harmony, making it a reflection of the infinite G-d who created it. We thus not only improve ourselves but perfect the entire universe -- left unfinished by G-d for man to complete. Thus, man becomes deserving of reward on an entirely different plane - not only for his personal accomplishments, but for fulfilling his cosmic mission to the universe and to G-d. And through this man upholds the second pillar of the world - 'acts of kindness.'"

The third "pillar," that of service, is perhaps the least intuitively obvious to the modern rational mind.  Even rabbinic Judaism's view of it has shifted since the time of Shim'on the Righteous, when "service ('avodah)" meant the ritual of Temple sacrifice.  By the time of the redaction of the Mishnah, the Temple sacrifices had been suspended.  While lamenting this suspension as a catastrophe of metaphysical dimensions, the rabbis found a substitute in the practice of prayer ("the offering of the lips").  They also held that the study of the laws of sacrifice was equivalent to the sacrifices themselves.  But this does not answer why, apart from acts of kindness, we need a separate "service" to G-d. Sacrifice and prayer have no obvious utilitarian function. The animal (or measure of grain) that is sacrificed is at least partially destroyed without having fed anyone.  Words of prayer addressed to G-d, unlike petitions, instructions, or commands addressed to humans, may not seem to move anything within the world.  So how can sacrifice and prayer be said to uphold the world?

One possible answer is that "service" – ritual – gives structure and stability to community, sets up a framework within which acts of kindness can take place.  It is unlikely, however, that the rabbis saw this as the main function of ritual. Their way of living is predicated on a belief in a transcendent G-d who not only created the universe once but who constantly sustains it through an inpouring of Divine energy.   "Service," by placing the individual in relation to G-d, makes it possible for the human to serve as a channel through which the energy of Transcendence enters the world.  In thermodynamic terms, closed systems tend to run down; it is through the inpouring of energy from outside that they maintain and even increase their degree of organization.

[Reflection: In recent years I have often asked whether the concept of sacrifice should be "updated" to reflect the changes in people's working lives that have occurred since the commandments of sacrifice were given. In the written Torah people were commanded to sacrifice sheep, goats, oxen, grain -offerings appropriate to a society that was primarily agricultural.  In our time, however, the product of many people's work is not physical foodstuffs but information – knowledge of law, economics, technology, psychology, sociology...  Such knowledge is generally exchanged in a competitive intellectual marketplace (despite the collaborative ideal of academia).   Might not a system of sacrifices meaningful for this time consist in an exchange of knowledge in a noncompetitive, "Sabbath" situation, aimed at putting together a map of human knowledge that would serve as a basis for intelligent attempts at tikkun ha-'olam? (See" The Hour's Direction ".)

In the perspective of our mishnah, this interpretation of "service" may look a bit too "utilitarian."   However, it seems to me that the global ecological and economical crisis has revealed an intermediate layer between service to G-d and acts of kindness toward human individuals, namely service to the unity of the Creation, by which each of us is sustained.

This unity of Creation is not just an external circumstance.  It can also be sensed from within, with the kind of global perception that poets and mystics have long talked about, and that is surely akin to prophecy.  The global crisis, then, may be a signal to think about ways of giving this sense more of a voice in the tradition – of renewing prophecy while avoiding if possible the dangers of immoderacy and divisiveness.

Not that poetry is altogether foreign to Pirkei Avot! One thing we begin to notice with this Mishnah is the editor's liking for numbers (an old-fashioned term for poetry is "numbers").  Things in Pirkei Avot tend to come in twos, threes, and fours, more rarely in sevens and tens.  As in poetry, this patterning may well be a mnemonic device -- a remnant of oral transmission.  As in poetry, it may also stem from a sense of "Patterns in the Universe" -- as Rabbi Rosenfeld titles the mishnah we have been discussing.]

Chapter I. Mishnah 3. The Mindset of the Maintainer


The Men of the Great Assembly and Shimon the Righteous have set forth the main tasks of the Talmudic community and the main categories of outward-focused activity that sustain it.  Antignos of Socho now turns to the ideal internal attitude of the individual who participates in the Talmudic enterprise.

The first part of Antignos' statement seems intended to get us past the questions raised by the perception that the good are not always immediately and visibly "rewarded" for their good deeds. (Talmudic legend, or aggada, exemplifies those whom are the world's apparent injustice deters from service in the character of Elisha ben Abuya.) One answer to this skeptical objection that the righteous receive their reward in a future world, in "the world to come." However, Antignos of Socho would say that the thought of reward is itself an improper motivation for Divine service. Rather, one should serve G-d out of love, as one does things willingly for those one loves.

Later commentators stress that one should not abandon faith that one the righteous will be rewarded in this world as well as the next.  However, these rewards should not be the main motive for one's service.  Perhaps one may think of musicians playing in a symphony orchestra.  Although they may receive a salary for their playing, their playing will not be any good unless they are playing for love of the music.

Antignos then tempers the foregoing with the injunction to "let the fear of heaven be upon you."  He thus implies that love of G-d is not enough; there must also be "fear."  As many commentators have pointed out, there are more negative than positive commandments in the Torah.  If one serves out of love, it is easy to believe that everything one does out of "love" is right.  The commentators generally emphasize that the "fear" which the righteous feel is not primarily the fear of external punishment (although, as we shall see in a later mishnah, one is encouraged to believe that punishment will be dealt out for wrongdoing).  Rather, it is the fear of sin or, as one member of the Beth Israel study group put it, a fear of being separated from G-d.  If one loves someone, then one fears to hurt or offend them.  If one has a good ear, one is disturbed by false notes.

[Reflection: I would submit that this is the best light in which to read Pirkei Avot: not as a series of admonitions to make life more difficult, but as a kind of score, an invitation to dance to the music of G-d.]

Chapter I, Mishnah 4: Configuring the Community (1)

Yossi ben (son of) Yo'ezer of Ts'raidah and Yossi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem received the transmission from them. Yossi ben Yo'ezer used to say, let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cleave to the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily their words.

The reader is again referred to Rabbi Rosenfeld’s excellent commentary, which on this Mishnah is particularly beautiful.

After establishing the basic mindset of the community member, the tractate now turns to the relationships among persons of this mindset. Social life is configured as a system of vessels for the transmission of Torah, which is compared (as elsewhere in the Talmud) to water, the very medium of life. The first requirement of such a society is for all members of the community to cultivate a habit of frequenting the carriers of tradition and attending to their words. Future Mishnayot will warn the contrary habit of superficial conversation and avoidance of the thoughtful, which is a recipe for sociopolitical stupidity.

The central clause of Yossi ben Yo'ezer's teaching, "Cleave to the dust of their feet," emphasizes humility, an essential feature of the Torah tradition from Moshe Rabbeinu onward. "Cleave to the dust of their feet." Such cleaving does not mean slavish subservience, but should follow naturallys from a willingness to hear and absorb what the Torah scholar carries. In order to understand, it is necessary to listen with the presumption that the speaker has something of value to impart.

This more difficult -- but more worthwhile -- than challenging a teaching with "critical" contradiction before one has understood it, and insisting on one's "own" opinion before one has thought enough to make an informed judgment. It is closely akin to the humility of the scientist. The novice physicist may have a theory that is better than Einstein's, but realizes that s/he needs to understand Einstein before making that claim.

Contemporary society often encourages young people to develop their "individuality" and "creativity" before they have learned the lessons of the past. Some may even feel that their individuality is threatened by listening carefully to others. It is certainly true that the untutored (as in Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) may perceive truths that the adults in a society have conditioned themselves to ignore (“groupthink”). Moreover, I have seen very good poems written by children, and probably many such more are written and lost because the child does not realize what s/he has written and adults are not willing to believe that a child could say something significant. Yet children can also be the most anxious conformists. Clearly, we need both to keep listening for the voice of the child and to encourage attention to elders and teachers. Creativity has its wellsprings in the individual soul, yet it unfolds by absorbing the knowledge of others. Without the light of others’ insight, one’s own world remains limited and dark.

In his commentary on this verse, Maimonides emphasizes the element of hospitality; he says that one's house should be like a synagogue or a house of study, so that if one scholar says to another, "Where shall I meet you?" the other will say, "At So-and-so's house." Again, social life in the Jewish world is inseparably interwoven with intellectual life, which thus rests not on isolated "research" but on an "infinite conversation" (to borrow the title of a work by Maurice Blanchot).

Chapter I, Mishnah 5: Configuring the Community (2)

Yossi the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household, and do not talk excessively with women. This was said regarding one's own wife, certainly with another's wife. Based on this the Sages have said, one who talks excessively with women causes evil to himself, wastes time from Torah study, and will eventually inherit Gehinnom (Hell).

This mishnah seems to have something to make everyone uncomfortable! Rather than immediately tackling the "difficult" parts, let us first try to understand the sages' central concerns.

All three imperatives in this mishnah have to do with openness. The first, "Let your house be open wide," represents an opening-up of the family unit. The walls of the home must be permeable in order to create a community worthy of the name. Hence the saying that the welcoming of guests is preferable to the welcoming of the Shekhinah; the rabbis interpret "the welcoming of the Shekhinah" as peace between husband and wife, so that hospitality must be practiced even at the expense of domestic tranquillity. The rabbis would might still insist on this even when heavy work schedules make "family time" rare and precious.

The second imperative, "Let the poor be members of your household," insists that this openness must extend to those of lesser social status. There is a universal tendency toward social climbing, and given the chance, we generally choose to entertain those whose externally measured "status" is at least equal to one's our own. An ideal learning/teaching community has little use for this kind of hierarchy; it can afford to recognize only an intellectual hierarchy (as established in the preceding mishnah). To include those of lesser material status in social life is one of those "acts of kindness" by which community is sustained. But it is also related to the enterprise of Torah – to the humility that needs to be cultivated in order for teaching and learning to be possible.

And then comes the third imperative, in which a door is suddenly slammed shut: "Do not talk excessively with women." (Or, more literally: "Do not hold much talk with women.") And not only is the door is slammed shut, but it is then bolted with dire warnings!

For many contemporary readers this injunction is a book-shutter, setting up a mind-block against the entire tractate. Even in Talmudic times it aroused opposition, personified in the figure of Beruria, the sole intellectual woman in the Talmud. It is told that Rabbi Yossi once met Beruria on the road and asked her, "Can you tell me how to get to Lod?" She replied, "Foolish Galilean, did you not say, 'Do not talk much with women?' You should have said, 'By which to Lod?'!" But Beruria was overruled, and the tale of her latter end is evidently meant as a warning for would-be femmes savantes. Much as one might like to dismiss this clause as a misogynist aberration on the part of one rabbi, its inclusion in this list of founding principles makes such dismissal difficult. Rabbi Rosenfeld's commentary deals with it by the time-honored method of searching for a non-literal meaning: "Only a home and a marriage whose foundations are based firmly upon sanctity and meaning, rather than frivolity, will be able to be opened up to guests and strangers." Although this is a beautiful saying, at least for this writer it cannot erase the centuries-long and, in some circles, still-current effect of the words' plain meaning. It seems part and parcel of a silencing of women's voices, extending beyond Biblical injunctions, that occurred in the Talmudic period, and that goes beyond Biblical injunctions. Traces of women's prophecy and song are preserved in the Hebrew Bible, probably as a remnant of a much larger body of creative work. In Talmudic times, women were barred from bearing witness in rabbinical court, forbidden to sing when men were present, and, by our present mishnah, excluded from the community of dialogue.

Over the centuries this saying, like others, has been glossed in various ways. The earliest commentary on Pirkei Avot, Avot de-Rabbi Natan, interprets it as a warning not to share with one's wife any quarrels that have arisen with fellow-scholars, for in so doing "he disgraces himself, disgraces his wife, and disgraces his fellow. And his wife, who used to treat him with honor, now stands and scoffs at him. Then his fellow hears of it and cries: 'Woe unto me! Words between himself and me he went and told his wife!' And thus such a person disgraces himself, disgraces his wife, disgraces his fellow." This warning is similar to the warning against lashon hara (evil tongue) in general; it is said that whoever speaks evil of another slays three (him/herself, the person of whom the evil is spoken, and the person to whom it is spoken). But then, it is not clear why the scholar's wife should be singled out, unless it is from an awareness that marital intimacy promotes such confidences. The injunction's basic motive, then, seems to be is to preservation of male-group solidarity, even at some cost to the communication between husband and wife. Although the Creation account (see Gen. 2:25) treats the pairing of man and woman as the most important human relationship, male groups that exclude females seem to be a virtually universal feature of human societies; and the sages may have relied on such a group’s internal strength to carry the teaching through the centuries of exile.

Other commentators interpret "talk" to mean "idle chatter," which is generally frowned on (and not only with members of the opposite sex). Less sympathetically, Maimonides (quoted in Judah Goldin, The Living Talmud) explains: "It is a known thing that for the most part conversation with women has to do with sexual matters." (Many a rational woman has had the mortifying experience of trying to communicate something of value, only to have the interlocutor attempt to sexualize the transaction; this seems due less to erotic attraction than to a need to keep women in their “place.”) Others qualify the injunction by saying it does not apply to conversations between husband and wife about necessary matters, for then "no evil comes about" because "the mind is concentrating on the advice it is receiving." (Meiri, ibid.)

However unsympathetic I find this decree, I am obliged to acknowledge that it responds to a problem that is quite real. I am reminded of various accounts of mixed groups that were convened for purposes of tikkun ha-'olam, only to break up because of erotic rivalries. The energy of communication is closely related to erotic energy, whether one holds that the former represents a "sublimation" of the latter, or whether one believes that the latter represents a "descent" of the former to a lower plane. Intense communication between persons of opposite sex can easily become eroticized, and this in turn can be detrimental to the flow of communication within the group. The prohibition of homosexuality may perhaps have been maintained for the same reason. Perhaps those who resist this injunction could take it as a challenge to prove by example that a non-exclusive learning and teaching community, of a depth and intensity equal to that which was purchased with various sacrifices, is possible!

Despite this injunction, the tradition has acknowledged that women have certain spiritual and intellectual strengths that are needed at times by the community. The midrash relates that the Israelite women were not corrupted by the exile in Egypt and did not participate in the worship of the golden calf. Women are said to have an "extra understanding" (binah yetairah). Recent science has shown that, indeed, men's and women's minds tend to work somewhat differently. In particular, it has been suggested that women have a tendency toward "global" perception, whereas men's thinking tends to be more analytical. As Harriet Beecher Stowe portrayed it, "[The mother] read the character of each, she mediated between opposing natures; she translated the dialect of different sorts of spirits, to each other." The dominance of men's thinking in secular fields may be partly responsible for the fragmentation of knowledge into specialities; an injection of binah yetairah may be what is necessary to pull our picture of the world back together. Moreover, "global" perception is related to poetic ability; thus the Western tradition, which during the last two millennia has been more open than the rabbinic tradition to women's voices, has also fostered a more extensive development of poetry. The coordination of men’s and women’s thinking, and reintegration of poetry into the tradition, are challenges from which the teaching/ and learning community might draw new energy.

The phrase "earth household," which surfaced with awareness of the ecological crisis, might serve as a "kavvanah" (intention) for an exchange reconfigured for openness to women's input. In The Fate of the Earth Jonathan Schell recommends an attitude of "universal parenthood," whereby all concerned with the human future, whether we have children of our own or not, would consider themselves "the parents of all future generations." When parents discuss matters that affect the future of their children, "the mind is concentrating on the advice it is receiving."

Chapter I, Mishnah 6: Configuring the Community (3)

Yehoshua ben (son of) Perachia and Nittai of Arbel received the transmission from them [the Rabbis mentioned in Mishnah 4]. Yehoshua ben Perachia said, make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably [or: "with the scale weighted in their favor"].

Like the preceding two mishnayot, this mishnah, with its tripartite division, is again concerned with marking out channels for communication. Whereas the preceding two deal in generalities, this one comes down to specific relationships.

If the three imperatives here, are to be taken in order, then it seems that the first thing the student must do is to find, or literally "make" ('aseh), for oneself a teacher. It may be noted that the word used here, rav, can also mean "master." In the Talmudic community, as in many spiritual communities worldwide, the student often performed concrete services for the teacher in return for teaching. This not only supported the teacher but also strengthened in the student the attitude of humility needed to absorb the teachings. Moreover, the relationship between pupil and teacher was expected to last, like the relationship between child and parent, until the departure of the elder from this world.

In the mind of a child of the Enlightenment, which has implanted a zeal for individual freedom of conscience and an awareness of the ever-present potential for abuse of power, the imperative to enter into this kind of relationship causes a red flag to pop up. Yet the refusal of the Talmudic pupil-teacher model has also had its price. In Western society today, the pupil-teacher relationship often seems modeled on the consumer-producer relationship. The teacher provides knowledge, for which s/he is compensated in one way or another, while the student goes on to use the knowledge in the way that s/he sees fit. The relationship is distant and transitory, seldom creating a sense of lasting obligation in either party. However, if the purpose of Torah is to strengthen the bonds within a community, its essence cannot be transmitted in this manner. It may also be noted that the vaunted independence of the Western individual has not prevented the prevalence of "groupthink" in many social and political movements led by publicists instead of sages! Many people see such groups as the only way to effectively advocate for their interests or causes; but the effectiveness of such groups is subject to the law of diminishing returns, as the truths they have ignored come back to haunt them.

The use of the verb 'aseh -- make -- reminds us that the choosing of a teacher is also a creative act. This use is at first surprising, since ordinarily we think of the teacher as "making," or molding, the student. Thus, when Abraham and Sarah go forth "with all the souls they had made ['asu] in Haran" [Gen. 12:5] Rashi interprets this to mean the converts that they had taught (although the plain meaning may be "acquired" [as slaves, in addition to their material possessions]). But, in another sense, it is the student who makes the teacher. Given human fallibility and imperfection, the qualifications of any one person to teach another can always be questioned. But by assigning the teaching role to another person, by "positing" the other as teacher, the student makes it possible for this that other to unfold their the capacity for wisdom and direction. The student's own inner wisdom takes shape, so to speak, in the posited teacher. The process resembles one possible approach to prayer: even starting from a position of unbelief, if one posits the existence of an omniscient Mind that can advise one in any situation, and then directs one's questions to such a Mind, one may receive answers. Even if one holds that the answers come from the asker's own "subconscious," still the asker might not gain access to the subconscious without this "projection," which allows the ego to be circumvented. Similarly, the selection of a teacher can be a way of getting around the ego to the deeper self.

Thus, Maimonides and Rabbeinu Yonah urge the student to find a teacher even if the teacher is no wiser or is even less wise than the student! Maimonides says that by learning from another person one understands and remembers the material better than when studying alone. (This seems to be in accordinace with the way human memory works: a proposition in a book may seem abstract and meaningless, compared with someone saying something to you.) We note, again, the connection between learning and social connection. Other commentators (Maharal, Alshich) emphasize that the obligation of finding a teacher rests on the student, since it is not proper for the scholar to approach prospective pupils and persuade them to become his students. True learning cannot be imposed or "sold"; it has to be sought out. By implanting the imperative to seek out teaching, the ethos of Pirkei Avot safeguards the dignity of teaching. Once again we see the pivotal importance of humility. The teacher cannot urge others to become his/her students, as this would suggest a lack of humility; the student must first demonstrate this quality by seeking a teacher.

In the Beth Israel discussion group, one participant offered a very ingenious, and very modern, interpretation of the imperative to find a teacher. She said that all of us absorb teachings from a great many different sources, which we try to reconcile and order in our own minds, so that they obtain a consistency as if we had learned them all from one teacher. Thus, each of us "makes" his or her internal, composite teacher! Given the multiple sources of information that all of us have in these times, perhaps this way of "making oneself a teacher" is necessary and inevitable. It is certainly preferable to absorbing miscellaneous opinions in various contexts without seeking to reconcile them. For the tradition, however, this interpretation of "making" one's teacher does not represent the ideal. On the contrary, the first commentary on Pirkei Avot, Avot de-Rabbi Natan, emphasizes that it is important to study with one teacher, rather than dividing one's attention among many. Friends in the Orthodox community have emphasized that it is not right to pick and choose among the opinions of different rabbis; one must choose one rabbi and follow his that teacher's advice. Otherwise, one's own ego remains the final arbiter.

Rabbi Rosenfeld's commentary on this mishnah draws a fascinating portrait of the teacher-pupil relationship between teacher and pupil in the traditional community, which I would like to quote and summarize here.

First, Rabbi Rosenfeld emphasizes that the true teacher not only teaches Torah but also exemplifies it. (One recalls that the 613 commandments -- 248 positive commandments for the limbs, 365 negative commandments for the sinews -- can be viewed as the articulation of the "image of G-d" in which humans are made; thus, the teacher is not only the explicator but also the model of the teaching.)

Second, Rabbi Rosenfeld writes, "the true Torah scholar is one who is imbued with the entire gamut of Torah knowledge -- and thus, he is the only one truly able to take that wisdom and apply it to life situations. Life is far more complicated than ritual and religious ceremony. We are constantly faced with challenges - struggling with our own natures and with our relationships with others. Many of the decisions we must make during our days and in the course of our lives are in reality religious by nature." Rabbi Rosenfeld then gives various examples of ethical decisions with which people are faced in everyday life. Such questions are a primary concern of the tradition, which contains lengthy records of situations that have arisen in the past and the responses to them. Moreover, "virtually none of [these] questions can be answered with a single verse or law in the Talmud [...] There are priorities and considerations which must be carefully weighed and balanced. [...] And only one who knows the entire Torah can decipher which of its many truths apply in any given situation. [...]"

And finally, writes Rabbi Rosenfeld, the answers may vary for different askers, so that the teacher's knowledge not only of the corpus of traditional responsa, but of the particular student, is of the essence. (Personal contact between teacher and student is of the essence; the teacher cannot be just an author whose books one admires.) "It really depends who I am, what the Torah's priorities are, and how the Torah's eternal truths apply to me in particular. And only the scholar who knows both the Torah's wisdom and myself personally will be able to assist me. He will see my own unique qualities and attributes - often better than I see them myself - and determine how the Torah's eternal values apply to me personally. And if he knows me - if I've 'made' for myself a rabbi - then I have some hope of striking that proper balance." This, consulting one’s teacher for moral advice is seen in much the same light as consulting a doctor on one’s health, or a lawyer on one’s legal rights and obligations. Most consider it is wise to seek learned advice on medical and legal matters because the law and the physical body have many "ins and outs," and ayn action may have unexpected implications. On the other hand, there is a tendency to think that ethical conduct -- the practice of acting so as to benefit not only oneself but the community -- is simple, and adequately covered by the injunction to "be a good person." (There is a mishnah about that too, further on.) This is very different from subjecting oneself to the scrutiny of someone who sees knows both the Torah and oneself as an individual.

Perhaps a balance could be struck between the traditional master-disciple relationship and the concern for individual autonomy. A first step might be for each person to ask him/herself: "Who in my circle of acquaintance would be able to give me the best advice, as an individual who wants to survive but also to contribute to the community?" Then, one would take it upon oneself to consult that person regularly and also to give that person some kind of assistance.

The teacher-pupil relationship takes place in a context of other relationships -- first among them, friendship, and the benevolence one owes to all. After being told to make ourselves a teacher, we are told to get (kneh) ourselves a friend (chaver).

We note that the word "friend" is used in a singular, not in the plural. We are told to seek out a close friendship with one other person. At the same time, the Prushim, or the rabbis, were also known collectively as the chaverim; the traditional yeshiva system of studying in pairs is known as hevruta. Friendship is not an "egoism for two," but a part of a "buddy system" that forms the connective tissue of the movement. Rabbeinu Yonah is quoted as saying that a friend is needed for three purposes: as a study partner, to remind one to fulfill the commandments and to repent of any sins committed, and for advice and counsel in all matters.

Whereas the teacher-pupil relationship is a hierarchical connection with someone whose wisdom, objectivity and control are greater than one’s own, friendship is an egalitarian connection with someone who is probably on the same level as oneself, and whose human failings may mirror one's own. Friendship is thus an opportunity to test and apply what one has learned from a teacher.

Various commentators have emphasized that the verb "kneh", in the phrase "get yourself a friend," can also mean "buy." That is, one is supposed to win friends by doing people favors, by being obliging (rather than insisting on being loved "for oneself alone"). Maimonides and other commentators even go so far as to say that if one cannot win a devoted friend by one's own character traits, one should even pay someone to be a friend! Essentially, this is what many people do by going to therapists or, more recently, "life coaches."

Lastly, the mishnah tells us to "judge every person with the scale weighted in their favor" -- to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Commenting on this passage, a colleague of mine questioned whether we should judge others at all. The answer that occurred to me is that perhaps what is meant here is not "passing judgment" on someone, but rather the kind of assessments that we are constantly, and necessarily, making, as we decide how much trust to place in others. The building of community is essential for the repair of the world, and the building of community requires the establishment of trust. The mishnah may be telling us to be constantly taking little risks for the sake of community.

The traditional commentaries make clear that it is this kind of assessment that is meant. Maimonides says that the injunction must be nuanced according to the known character of the person in question. If the person has a record of average behavior, one is supposed to assume s/he has acted rightly or with good motive as long as there is room for reasonable doubt. If a person is known to be especially righteous, then one should bend over backwards to find a good reason for their action even when it seems implausible. If, however, the person is known as a bad actor, then even his/her apparently righteous actions must be viewed with suspicion. The purpose of these qualifications is evidently to protect the community -- from the deleterious effects of mutual suspicion on the one hand, and from exploitation of trust by the unscrupulous, on the other.

This last, most general part of the saying connects with the first two parts: one must give one's teacher the benefit of the doubt in believing that s/he is worthy to teach, and one must give one's friend the benefit of the doubt in believing that s/he is worthy of one's friendship. One could also apply it to the relationship of the outsider to the tradition and community that are based on Pirkei Avot. Given the priorities of journalism and the dynamics of interaction between communities, Orthodoxy most often comes to the attention of the non-Orthodox when its laws are interpreted in a manner that clashes with other people's priorities. Instead of reacting to these incidents with condemnation of the Orthodox way of life, outsiders should try to see the underlying logic of that way of life and the standards it sets for any who would propose to devise a better one. From the other side of the fence, Rabbi Rosenfeld writes that in judging the non-observant it is necessarily to make all possible allowances for lack of knowledge: "Apart from the almost universal ignorance of Judaism altogether today (whether or not someone has heard there are Orthodox Jews with long beards and coats in New York somewhere), a person today could have easily been raised to an Orthodox family and in an observant neighborhood -- and somehow never truly grew into what Judaism is all about. And there may not have been anyone there to properly guide and inspire him during some of the crucial early stages of his life."

Finally, it seems to me that the last part of this mishnah could be translated: "Give all humanity (et kol ha-adam) the benefit of the doubt." Believe, in other words, that despite all the crimes of which humankind is guilty, human beings basically wish to live in peace and justice and will one day learn how to do so.

Chapter 1, Mishna 7: Configuring the Community (4)

Nittai of Arbel said, distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person, and do not despair of punishment."

This mishnah shows us the negative side of communal solidarity. In previous mishnayot we were told to seek out the sages, to befriend the poor, to find a teacher and a friend, and to give people the benefit of the doubt. However, where doubt has ceased to exist, we are told to take a distance and not to despair that, in contemporary parlance, those in question will "get theirs." Trust in humans has its limits; they are reached where it conflicts with the physical and spiritual protection of oneself and the community. Then, all that can be trusted is the eventual justice of the Almighty.

This may seem much less sympathetic than the injunctions to trust and benevolence. However, even the book of Psalms, that guidebook on the way of prayer, begins with the words: "Happy is the man who does not walk in the way of sinners nor stand in the counsel of the wicked nor sit in a session of scoffers. Rather, his desire is for the Torah of G-d, and on his Torah he meditates day and night." Spiritual and communal life begins with the avoidance of those who cannot respect spiritual and communal values. Again one recalls that the Talmudic sages were also called Prushim -- those set apart. And this is not only a generational phenomenon but is deeply rooted in the Torah: the term qadosh, applied to both G-d and the Jewish people, is usually translated "holy" but can also be translated "set apart."

One way of understanding this imperative is to consider what happens where it is not followed. Everyone has at some time been in a group that is dominated by one or more bullies. Recent studies of playground behavior have shown that bullies tend to be popular and considered "cool," while their targets are shunned. Of course, no one wants to be associated with a target, as one then risks becoming a target oneself. And, sadly, this dynamic tends to persist into adult life. Everyone has been part of some group that was dominated by its most aggressive member, to whom the rest tended to play up, instead of defending the group's civility. In such a group, openness is impossible and a constructive, let alone creative, exchange cannot even get started. Finally, we see this dynamic operating in the international arena, as Israel, the target of a sustained campaign by nations whose human rights record is more than dubious, becomes subject to “moral” condemnation by other nations as well. Thus, even human rights are invoked to favor the would-be abrogators of human rights. If the negative condition for community (rejection of bad actors) is not met, even the attempt to pursue the positive goals of community will be counterproductive.

This precept can be very difficult to observe. It is, in fact, a Utopian demand. How can a teenager in a school run by gangs, or an employee of a corrupt corporation, hope to observe it? Rabbi Rosenfeld writes (basing himself on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch): "Regarding bad neighbors we are told to distance ourselves, while regarding the wicked we are told only not to befriend them. The reason for this difference is that it is possible to choose one's neighbors - by selecting a neighborhood in which to live. Regarding the wicked, however, it is impossible to entirely avoid contact with them - in business (especially) or on the street. Thus, we may have to interact with them on some level, but we must take care not to closely befriend them." The Utopian demand cannot be completely complied with; what one can do is to recognize its legitimacy and observe it to the extent of one's freedom of action, by not supporting bullies and by befriending their targets and those who show "civilian courage."

It is in the light of this difficulty, I believe, that we must understand the phrase "do not despair of punishment (or retribution)." The belief in a G-d who punishes wrongdoing can be seen as an antidote to the social pressure exerted by wrongdoers. Yes, it may seem nicer to tell ourselves that G-d loves everyone and in the end everyone will be saved. And indeed the Talmud reports favorably the words of Beruria who, when her husband Rabbi Meir was going to pray for the death of certain robbers, urged him instead to pray for their repentance (according to the story, he did so and they repented). But if this benevolent attitude becomes a rationalization for sustaining warm relations with an abuser while somehow never finding time to think about the situation of the bully's victim, then it's better to remind oneself that, in R. Rosenfeld's words, the time of the wicked "will come -- whether in this world or the next -- and we will be much better off not being around at that time."

Rabbi Rosenfeld relates this mishnah to the rejection of proselytizing that has been part of the Orthodox ethos for many centuries. His title for this mishnah is "Jewish ghettos." Throughout the centuries of exile, Jews have protected themselves against negative influences by drawing together and isolating themselves to the extent possible. This has had its price, Rabbi Rosenfeld acknowledges: "our host nations have almost invariably seen us as a foreign entity living within their midst. And they have alternately seen us as capable and hard-working contributors to their prosperity or as leeches drawing off of their hard-earned savings." Moreover, it seems to contradict the mission of Judaism to be "a light unto the nations." However, Rabbi Rosenfeld discounts the utility of deliberate efforts at proselytization -- somewhat on the principle, discussed above, that the student must seek out the teacher rather than vice versa: "Nobody likes to be lectured to. If we run after others with proofs and elaborate discourses on religion, we will appear much like cults and fringe groups, distributing entertaining reading material at red lights and bus terminals. We would achieve little more than cheapen Judaism in the eyes of the masses." Rather, Judaism believes in teaching by example: "We create our own utopian societies. We show mankind by our lives and behavior what human beings are capable of, not by living in isolated monasteries, but by building healthy and thriving - but separate - societies."

[One response to this, from a convert’s position: It is true that nobody urged me to convert, certainly not with "elaborate discourses on religion"; I first became drawn toward Judaism through contacts with Jews who were neither observant nor, in most cases, very knowledgeable about their tradition. But on drawing closer it appeared to me that Judaism offered possible solutions to the questions over which my generation had been agonizing. As an outsider, I had had no access to these solutions. On the other hand, I wouldn't have seen certain things in the tradition, had I not been approaching it from a sense of the world's need. Thus it seems to me that there is room for attempts, not for attempts to "prove" Judaism, but to explain how it is relevant to the real problems that face humanity.]