Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chapter Six

It is customary during the counting of the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot, to study one chapter of Perkei Avot each week.

So, ...

Logically, Pirke Avot functions as a sort of prologue to the Mishna as a whole. It provides a justification for the whole Rabbinic project (thus chapter one's faux lineage of authority from Moses to Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi and his son Gamliel III, as well as those easily remembered bon-mots from the Mishna's main contributors.) As such it deals not so much with Halacha - Jewish Law - but with aphorisms designed to build character or vignettes designed to glorify Jewish life as it should be in the eyes of the Rabbis.

This weeks chapter - six - is in fact an addendum to the prologue that is Pirke Avot. (It starts out by telling us so - that it is a collections of later Tannaitic writings (Beraitot) added on after the rest of the Mishna had been "closed.") So before we dive into Chapter Six, lets go back and look at the closing lines of Chapter Five - the last lines of the main body of Pirke Avot. The closing lines of a prologue are usually quite significant.

MISHNAH 22: BEN BAG BAG SAID: TURN IT OVER, AND [AGAIN] TURN IT OVER, FOR ALL IS THEREIN. AND LOOK INTO IT; AND BECOME GREY AND OLD THEREIN;157 NEITHER MOVE THOU AWAY THEREFROM, FOR THAN IT THOU HAST NO BETTER STANDARD OF CONDUCT.

MISHNAH 23: BEN HEHE SAID: ACCORDING TO THE LABOUR IS THE REWARD.

The "it" in mishna 22 is, of course, Torah: not in the narrow sense of the five books of Moses, but in the largest sense - of all the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) as well as the Oral Teachings, or maybe we could say of all true learning. And the "labour" referred to in Mishna 23 is study.

And this is the whole point of Avot. To glorify the life of study. The Rabbis of the Mishna had raised study to the pinnacle of Jewish religious practice. Studying about Temple worship replaced Temple worship itself. Study became a religious obligation and pratcise in and of itself - not primarily or necessarily in order to do better - but for its own sake: LiShmah. Out of this rabbinc fram of mind flows the whole Yeshiva Culture that dominated Judaism for so many centuries, as well as the love of learning and the respect for education that is still charachteristic of even secular Jews.

The Jew as effete intellectual is an ideal that the Mishna Rabbis wouldn't have shied away from (Resh Lakhish not withstanding.) When confronted with the choice of "Studying" or "Doing" (a choice modern Western society would clearly and easily make in favour of "Doing") they vacillate and equivocate and struggle with the answer, but ultimately come done on the side of "Study." Two famous Talmudic quotes make the point.
THE FOLLOWING ARE THE THINGS FOR WHICH A MAN ENJOYS THE FRUITS IN THIS WORLD WHILE THE PRINCIPAL REMAINS FOR HIM IN THE WORLD TO COME: THE HONOURING OF FATHER AND MOTHER, THE PRACTICE OF CHARITY, AND THE MAKING OF PEACE BETWEEN A MAN AND HIS FRIEND; BUT STUDY IS EQUAL TO THEM ALL. (Peah Cap 1)
and
R. Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper storey of Nithza's house, in Lydda, when this question was raised before them: Is study greater, or practice? R. Tarfon answered, saying: Practice is greater. R. Akiba answered, saying: Study is greater, for it leads to practice. Then they all answered and said: Study is greater, for it leads to action. (Kudushin 40b)
So strong was the Rabbis obsession with study, that there are several cautionary tales of the bad things that happened to scholars who neglect their "marital duties" because they can't bear to interrupt their study.

So it should come as no surprise that the addendum that is Chapter Six is a collections of aphorism about the virtue and glory that is study and learning.

R. MEIR SAID: WHOEVER OCCUPIES HIMSELF WITH THE TORAH FOR ITS OWN SAKE, ACQUIRES BY MERIT MANY THINGS AND THE WHOLE OF THE WORLD IS WORTH WHILE FOR HIS SAKE.

HE IS CALLED:
A FRIEND,
A BELOVED,
ONE THAT LOVES THE ALL-PRESENT,
ONE THAT LOVES HIS FELLOW CREATURES.
ONE THAT GLADDENS GOD,
ONE THAT GLADDENS MAN;

AND HIS LEARNING CLOTHES HIM WITH HUMILITY AN PIETY,

AND FITS HIM TO BE RIGHTEOUS, PIOUS, UPRIGHT AND FAITHFUL;

AND IT ALSO KEEPS HIM FAR FROM SIN, AND BRINGS HIM NEAR TO RIGHT CONDUCT;

AND MEN BENEFIT FROM HIM BY WAY OF HIS WISE COUNSEL, SOUND KNOWLEDGE, UNDERSTANDING AND STRENGTH, AS IT IS SAID, COUNSEL IS MINE AND SOUND WISDOM; I AM THE UNDERSTANDING, POWER IS MINE;

AND IT GIVES HIM SOVEREIGNTY AND DOMINION AND [THE FACULTY TO BE] SEARCHING IN JUDGMENT;

AND LEARNING REVEALS TO HIM THE SECRET MEANINGS, AND HE IS MADE AS A WELL THAT EVER GATHERS FORCE, AND LIKE A STREAM THAT NEVER CEASES;

AND HE BECOMES MODEST, LONG-SUFFERING AND FORGIVING OF INSULT TOWARDS HIMSELF;

AND IT MAKES HIM GREAT, AND EXALTS HIM ABOVE ALL THE WORKS OF GOD.


That's a lot of rewards, for something that is to be done for its own sake, and not rewards! (But to be fair, these are all non-material rewards, though promising someone honour - all the good things he will be called - while at the same time promising humility does seems to be appealing to two contradictory impulses.)

And the chapter continues with these lines:

HE WHO LEARNS FROM HIS FELLOW ONE SINGLE SECTION, OR ONE SINGLE RULE, OR ONE SINGLE VERSE, OR ONE SINGLE EXPRESSION, OR EVEN ONE SINGLE LETTER, IS UNDER OBLIGATION TO TREAT HIM WITH HONOUR; ...

SUCH IS THE WAY OF LIFE CONDUCIVE TO THE STUDY OF THE TORAH: A MORSEL OF BREAD WITH SALT THOU SHALT EAT, AND WATER BY MEASURE THOU SHALT DRINK, AND UPON THE GROUND THOU SHALT SLEEP, AND A LIFE OF PRIVATION THOU SHALT LIVE, AND IN THE TORAH SHALT THOU LABOUR. IF THOU DOEST THUS, HAPPY SHALT THOU BE, AND IT SHALL BE WELL WITH THEE ...

SEEK NOT GREATNESS FOR THYSELF, AND COVET NOT HONOUR MORE THAN THY LEARNING; NEITHER CRAVE THOU FOR THE TABLE OF KINGS, FOR THY TABLE IS GREATER THAN THEIR TABLE, AND THY CROWN IS GREATER THAN THEIR CROWN ...

GREATER IS THE STUDY OF TORAH THAN THE PRIESTHOOD AND THAN THE KINGSHIP ...

No wonder the cult of learning is so strong among the Jews! And I have to admit, that I myself spend a lot of time reading and studying to an end that I can only describe as transcendent. I probably should get out and work in my garden more often - but I get obsessed with this or that philosophical or political or religious article / book, and I can't let go. Last year when we went on vacation to St Lucia, I am sure I was the only one on the beach reading French philosophy

Maybe I should have been an academic ...

If so, the chapter continues with instructions for academics - scholar and student alike:

THE PROPER SCHOLAR IS ONE WHO:
  • RECOGNIZES HIS PLACE,
  • REJOICES IN HIS PORTION,
  • IS CAREFUL WITH HIS WORDS,
  • CLAIMS NO CREDIT FOR HIMSELF,
  • IS LOVED AND LOVES,
  • WELCOMES CORRECTION OF HIMSELF,
  • LOVES UPRIGHTNESS,
  • KEEPS HIMSELF FAR FROM HONOUR[S],
  • LETS NOT HIS HEART BECOME SWELLED ON ACCOUNT OF HIS LEARNING,
  • DELIGHTS NOT IN GIVING LEGAL DECISIONS,
  • SHARES IN THE BEARING LEGAL DECISIONS WITH HIS COLLEAGUE,
  • PLACES HIS COLLEAGUE UPON A GROUNDWORK OF TRUTH,
  • PLACES HIM UPON A GROUNDWORK OF PEACE,
  • COMPOSES HIMSELF AT HIS STUDY,
  • ASKS AND ANSWERS QUESTIONS,
  • LISTENS TO OTHERS AND THEN ADDS,
  • LEARNS IN ORDER TO TEACH,
  • ALSO LEARNS IN ORDER TO PRACTISE,
  • MAKES HIS TEACHERS WISER,
  • QUOTES WITH PRECISION THAT WHICH HE HAS HEARD,
  • AND SAYS A THING IN THE NAME OF HIM WHO SAID IT. LO, THOU HAST LEARNT: EVERYONE THAT SAYS A THING IN THE NAME OF HIM WHO SAID IT, BRINGS DELIVERANCE INTO THE WORLD, AS IT IS SAID: AND ESTHER TOLD THE KING THEREOF IN MORDECAI'S NAME.
I am not sure that modern academia has taken any of this to heart - except the last two points: do accurate footnotes; upon this depends salvation !

Finally the chapter re-iterate that a life of learning is its own reward and worth more than material success.

R. JOSE B. KISMA SAID:

ONCE I WAS WALKING BY THE WAY WHEN A MAN MET ME, AND SAID TO ME ‘PEACE’,AND I RESPONDED 'PEACE’.

SAID HE TO ME, 'RABBI, FROM WHAT PLACE ART THOU?’'

SAID I TO HIM, ‘FROM A GREAT CITY OF SAGES AND SCRIBES AM I.’

SAID HE TO ME, ‘RABBI, SHOULD IT BE THY PLEASURE THAT THOU DWELL WITH US IN OUR PLACE, {AND TEACH US] I WILL GIVE THEE A THOUSAND THOUSAND DENARII OF GOLD,AND PRECIOUS STONES AND PEARLS.’

SAID I TO HIM: ‘IF THOU SHOULDST GIVE ME ALL THE SILVER AND GOLD, PRECIOUS STONES AND PEARLS THAT ARE IN THE WORLD, I WOULD NOT DWELL ANYWHERE EXCEPTING IN A PLACE OF MUCH TORAH LEARNING; FOR IN THE HOUR OF THE DEPARTURE OF A MAN FROM THE WORLD, THERE ACCOMPANY HIM NEITHER GOLD NOR SILVER, NOR PRECIOUS STONES NOR PEARLS, BUT TORAH AND GOOD DEEDS ALONE, AS IT IS SAID, WHEN THOU WALKEST, IT SHALL LEAD THEE, WHEN THOU LIEST DOWN, IT SHALL WATCH OVER THEE; AND WHEN THOU WAKEST, IT SHALL TALK WITH THEE.


Is it really only the life of the mind that gives our lives meaning? I find this attitude tempting. Too tempting perhaps. Time to slap myself on the face and get up and DO something!

1 Comments:

Anonymous Eri said...

AND SAYS A THING IN THE NAME OF HIM WHO SAID IT. LO, THOU HAST LEARNT: EVERYONE THAT SAYS A THING IN THE NAME OF HIM WHO SAID IT, BRINGS DELIVERANCE INTO THE WORLD, AS IT IS SAID: AND ESTHER TOLD THE KING THEREOF IN MORDECAI'S NAME.

From this Jewish law concludes there is no such thing as intellectual property rights except crediting the idea. Bye bye billion dollar software lawsuits. Microsoft just has to say We stole this idea from Syd Nestel

8:26 am  

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