Pirkei Avot is a small tractate of the Mishna [redacted about 220 CE] devoted to ethical principles. Although its name is usually translated, “Ethics of the Fathers,” because the word “avot” is often used in rabbinic writings to mean “fundamental principles,” the tractate might best be termed “Ethical Fundamentals” or something of the sort. The texts reminds one of the Book of Proverbs, the Letter of James, and the Sermon on the Mount. This should come as no surprise, because like Proverbs, the Letter of James and the Sermon on the Mount, Pirkei Avot is wisdom literature, in which the narrator or author positions himself as a communal sage advising others on the two ways that humankind can go, the good road that leads to life, and the evil way that leads to death. There is no third alternative.
It is traditional for Jews to read one chapter of this book after Mincha [afternoon] services each Shabbat between Pesach/Passover and Shavuot/Pentecost. In keeping with that habit, we too will study one chapter each week between now and Shavuot/Pentecost, on Thursdays, as part of our Thursday theme “Truths Our Fathers [and Mothers] Told Us.” That means that today’s consideration is Chapter One. And since these principles are generally stated as aphorisms, we won’t be studying entire chapters as a rule, but rather key thoughts in each chapter. Again, today’s contemplation is Chapter One.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.
This is the chain of tradition which the Pharisees postulated as eventually passing the mantle of God’s Word down to themselves. Jewish political theory follows the lead of Deuteronomy in postulating that God mediated his authority to his people in three “channels” called The Three Crowns; the Crown of Prophecyàtorah [instruction], the Crown of Priesthood, and the Crown of Kingship. A rabbinic dictum states “keter torah k’neged kulam,” the crown of Torah encompasses them all! Due to the destruction of the Temple, the power base of the priesthood, and of course the dissolving of the kingship of Israel due to the death of the last Judahite king in Exile, all that remains . . . for now . . . is the crown of Torah, that is, of holy instruction.
Many will object to this historical construct. There are many who say that the men of the Great Assembly, that deliberative body bridging the prophets to the Pharisees, never existed at all! But this is besides my point, which is this: every group has its pet narrative about why it exists and why it has the authority it does. Pentecostals, Baptists, Mennonites, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and myriad brands of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews each and all have their own party line about who they are, how they came to be sorted out from other such groups, and often, why their group is so very “special.” But all of these versions of reality are constructs: they are not history as it was and is, but rather history as constructed, remembered, as selected and tweaked. This calls for humility about ourselves and graciousness toward others, both of which are conspicuous in their absence in almost every case. But it would be nice if we would all sit back, and while still taking ourselves and our progenitors seriously, ease off on our absolutist claims about the illegitimacy of the other folks and their historical narratives. All of us are telling stories to ourselves, about ourselves, and about everyone else: and only God knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
So here at the beginning of Chapter One of Pirkei Avot we read this. That the men of the Great Assembly, custodians of the traditions handed down all the way from the time of Moses, promoted three fundamentals as being matters of communal survival, concern and vitality. Let’s look at them for a moment.
Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.
Be deliberate in judgment: this is the priority of justice and truth. One need only open up the daily newspaper to find how right they were, how lacking of and hungry for truth and justice we are today, regardless of the culture or society in question. Is there anywhere in the world where we are satisfied the twin priority of truth and justice is being well-served? While it is true that there are some cultures and countries where truth and justice are routinely ignored and abused, and others where truth and justice are more likely to get a fair shake, the fact remains that there is no place on earth where this joint responsibility is fully served, to uphold truth and justice, to be “deliberate” and therefore careful and responsible in judgment.
However, this stipulation applies not only to the judiciary, but to all of us. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, Visions of our Fathers, tells us, “All of us are judges, and although we may not render decisions in litigation, we frequently make decisions that affect others as well as ourselves, Hence, guidelines that are appropriate for jurists are equally appropriate for everyone.”
The second societal imperative is to “raise up many disciples.” This is the imperative of transmitting a revered tradition. Here in America, the general cultural consensus is that everyone should do what is right in their own eyes. This is an unquestioned axiom: but the Bible questions it, as should we all. Although Moses had specifically warned against it [Deut 12:8], we read in the Book of Judges that the people of Israel went through a directionless time of comparative societal chaos when “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” This phrase was not a commendation, but an indictment. Societies, whether they be families, businesses, fraternities, clubs, sororities, neighborhoods, towns, villages, cities, states, countries—all need consensus and the consent of the governed to run efficiently. And in order to have the consent of the governed, one needs people who understand that they are to be governed, and not simply live their lives in autonomy and/or narcissism. Yet this is a hard sell.
From the Jewish point of view, as well as that of other religious cultures and subgroups, and from the vantage point of political and cultural theory, there are things worth sharing from generation to generation, there is a legacy to be maintained, mastered, yes, sometimes modified, and passed on from generation to generation. We ought indeed to “raise up many disciples” of that way of life we consider to be holy, just and good. And we might take seriously the admonition of Hillel who said, “Teach every man [and woman!], for many a sinner was attracted to the study of Torah and then fathered righteous and worthy generations.” You never can tell how beautiful and sturdy will be the plant from the seed you have sown and watered.
Finally there is the social imperative to “make a fence around the Torah.” Too many people, having absorbed some unfortunate assumptions from that anti-Judaism that has clung for too long to the skirts of the church, think of “tradition” as a bad word, and naively imagine that they are free from traditions. What they miss is that Yeshua never discounted traditions per se, nor did he discount “mere human” traditions, which is the habit of too many naïve even if well-meaning people. He only discounted those traditions through which people nullify the commandments of God. In Matthew 23:23 he gave what should be the definitive word on this when he said:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Most people stop short before the final sentence of this quotation. They think only of how a preoccupation with punctiliousness nullifies the quest for justice mercy and faithfulness. However, such is NOT the teaching of Christ! Rather, he decries the occasions when people lose their sense of proportion, nullifying such weightier matters as justice, mercy and faithfulness. But notice his final, usually ignored sentence: “These you ought to have done [justice, mercy, and faithfulness] without neglecting the others [tithing mint, and dill, and cumin]. He says don’t neglect your tithing of mint, dill and cumin. What one must not miss is that these are not biblical commands, but “mere human traditions,” which Jesus says that we Jews should continue, as long as we keep our priorities straight.
There are three kinds of traditions, of which only one is a bad idea! The first kind of tradition is one that supports what Scripture would require, for example, the tradition of having services at a fixed time each week so as to regularize compliance with the stipulation not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. The second kind of tradition is a neutral tradition, that neither confirms nor violates Scripture. For example, eating bagels and lox every Sunday morning, which was the tradition in my house growing up. The third kind of tradition, which alone is a bad idea, is an tradition which negate what Scripture requires or forbids. For example, if you belong to a fraternity in college where it is traditional to get drunk the weekend of the Big Game, this is not something you should do because Scripture forbids getting drunk. Only a tradition which clearly violates a provision in the Bible is a bad tradition. The others are just fine, and if they help you lead an orderly life in the service of God, go for it!
People who reflexively and wrongly reject laws and traditions also tend to denounce making a fence around the law, which means enacting regulations more strict than the letter of the law in order to preclude violation of that law. What they miss entirely is that Yeshua honored this custom. For he is building a fence around the law “thou shalt not commit adultery” when he proscribes lusting after a woman in one’s heart, and he builds a fence around the law “thou shalt not kill,” when he says, I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” [Matt 5:22]. Building a fence around a law is a GOOD thing. It is like two teens who go out on a date and want to preserve their virtue. They will set up safeguards so that one thing does not lead to another. They, or their wise parents, set up fences around the law. On the other hand, we have a word for teenagers who instead try and see how close they can get without “going all the way.” We call such people “parents.” It is better to have a fence around the law: it prevents violation.
This, together with being deliberate in judgment, and raising up many disciples, is another of those truths our fathers told us (our mothers too!)