Saturday, May 02, 2009

Chapter Three

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 ...

Last week (in Chapter Two) we had Rabban Gamliel ben Yehuda telling us not to trust the government, as it is corrupt and self serving. Good advice! And Gamliel probably knew of what he spoke, since his father Rabbi Yehuda "the Prince" (Yehuda HaNasi) was the chief Jewish representative to the Romans. This was circa 200 AD, after the Jews where twice defeated in revolts by the Romans, and definitively and completely under their thumb.

This week we have another opinion:
R. HANINA, THE VICE-HIGH PRIEST, SAID: PRAY FOR THE WELFARE OF THE GOVERNMENT, FOR WERE IT NOT FOR THE FEAR THEREOF, ONE MAN WOULD SWALLOW UP ALIVE HIS FELLOW-MAN.

Well, that's what's wonderful about the Talmud! It is not a well edited book of Law. It is the record of discussions of the Rabbis about how to lead a proper Jewish life. Often that has to do with "law", and sometimes there is a conclusion. But often there is none. Contradictory opinions are allowed to stand.

But, nevertheless, what might prompt Hannina to have such a "pro government" point of view? Well firstly, he lived about 200 years before Gamliel when Roman rule was not so absolute. Jews still had a large degree of autonomy, as long as they paid taxes and obeyed a thin layer of Roman law, mostly in their dealings with non-Jews. So, is Hannina pro-government because the government is not so bad in his day?

We know from many sources, that the Jewish - Roman appointed - "Kings" and other officials of Hannina's time where pretty corrupt, and certainly where not held in much esteem by the naissant Rabbis. So is Hannina pro-government simply because it is still nominally Jewish?

Or maybe its personal? Hannina is the "Vice High Priest." He is "one heartbeat away" from being High Priest himself. (He never made it we are told by other sources.) So he is part of the ruling class. A ruling class that is despised by many of his Rabbinic colleagues. So, maybe this dictum is his way of justifying the privileged position for himself and his class?

Or maybe Hannina is really a Hobbesean? (Can you be a Hobbesean 1600 years before Hobbes?) Thomas Hobbes, of course, postulated that the natural state of man is a "war of all against all," and without imposed order we are doomed to live lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

I think this latter explanation of Hannina's position is closer to the mark, or at least (for who knows what really motivated Hannina to say what he said?) accords with how it was understood by the editor of this chapter of Pirkei Avot.

The chapter seems mostly concerned with answering the question of why and how to be good. The first mishna contains this depressing gem:
AKABIAH B. MAHALALEEL SAID: APPLY THY MIND TO THREE THINGS AND THOU WILT NOT COME INTO THE POWER OF SIN: KNOW WHENCE THOU CAMEST, AND WHITHER THOU ART GOING, AND BEFORE WHOM THOU ART DESTINED TO GIVE AN ACCOUNT AND RECKONING. WHENCE CAMEST THOU? — FROM A FETID DROP. WHITHER ART THOU GOING? — TO A PLACE OF DUST, OF WORM AND OF MAGGOT. BEFORE WHOM ART THOU DESTINED TO GIVE AN ACCOUNT AND RECKONING? — BEFORE THE KING OF THE KINGS OF KINGS, THE HOLY ONE, BLESSED BE HE.

Aside from showing an almost gnostic disgust with sex or anything corporal and this-worldly, Akibiah's point seems to be that only by contemplating the insignificance of our lives and our eventual and certain bodily death and decay; only by fearing punishment (or hoping for reward) in the afterlife can we be motivated to be good.

Hannina's mishna re government (that we quoted above) immediately follows Akibah's mishna. In this context, it seems to be contradicting Akibiah's view of how to make people behave properly. Hannina is saying we need strong governments with the ability to enforce rewards and punishments in the hear and now, in order to convince (force?) people to behave properly and be good.

(Note that neither Akibiah nor Hannina has much trust in "human nature" by itself.)

But the author of Pirkei Avot has an agenda here - or so it seems to me. He sets this up as an argument between two "straw men" and then introduces the "correct" answer as a third alternative. Thus after a few lines that talk about the importance of studying Torah at almost every opportunity, we reach mishna 5:
R. NEHUNIA B. HAKKANAH SAID: WHOEVER TAKES UPON HIMSELF THE YOKE OF THE TORAH, THEY REMOVE FROM HIM THE YOKE OF GOVERNMENT AND THE YOKE OF WORLDLY CONCERNS, AND WHOEVER BREAKS OFF FROM HIMSELF THE YOKE OF THE TORAH, THEY PLACE UPON HIM THE YOKE OF GOVERNMENT AND THE YOKE OF WORLDLY CONCERNS.

Aha! Torah is the answer!

By studying Torah (studying/pondering/discussing ethics, in this context) we can be made to (rationally?) see that we SHOULD be good. If we study in this way, and submit totally to the conclusions of our study, we need neither the fear of death ("the yoke of worldly concerns") nor the fear of State punishment ("the yoke of government") in order to motivate us to do good.

Not an altogether bad conclusion, in my opinion.

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