Pirkei Avot: The Ethics of our Ancestors Chapter One Section Two


This section of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, concerns the things that are necessary to maintain the world.

Simon The Righteous said, “The world stands on three things-The Torah, Service of God, and Acts of Loving Kindness.

א,ב  שמעון הצדיק היה משיירי אנשי כנסת הגדולההוא היה אומר, על שלושה דברים העולם עומדעל התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים

Let’s take a look at this section by section, and then all together. Rabbi Simon lived int the 3rd century BCE. As you can see by his name he was not a rabbi, because rabbis did not yet exist. However, his teachings, and this one in particularly led to the development of rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. He was in fact a priest, a kohen, in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, which still stood in his lifetime. He was also a witness to the corruption a priesthood based religion can bring. As I have explained in a previous posting, priesthoods are based on hoarding knowledge, not sharing it with the people. In addition, priesthoods are inherited, not earned. Simon and his colleagues prepare the way to a meritocracy, religious leadership available to everyone regardless of birth. It was Simon’s vision that allows Judaism to survive after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

The first thing he says that is necessary for the world to survive is the Torah. Notice he does not say the Jewish world, but the entire world. He believed that the Torah was God’s blueprint for creation. This does not mean that he thought that everyone should be Jewish, but rather that the ethics that the Torah brought to the world would prevent the world from returning to chaos. It was the Torah that first introduced the idea that all people were created in God’s image, not just an elite few.

Torah was also accessible now to all who wanted to learn. People would only be limited by their own perseverance, not their background.

The second thing he includes is Service of God. The hebrew word used here, avodah, really means Temple service and sacrifice. Pirkei Avot is published after the destruction of the Temple so it seems strange to include it now. Our sages, though, said that prayer is Service of the Heart, and could substitute for sacrifice. This is why Jewish prayers services are timed the way they are. They correspond to the times of the day that sacrifices had been offered.

Finally, he talks about acts of lovingkindness. This is not charity, but going above and beyond the kindness that we have to show to others. It is extending ourselves more than necessary. It is important to note that doing enough is not considered enough when it comes to kindness. These acts also do not require money. They can be done by anyone, rich or poor, young or old. Sometimes just a kind word is exactly what is needed. It is powerful to me that Simon made acts of kindness equal to the Torah and ritual service of God.

Let’s look at how these ideas are connected to each other. Each represents an aspect of being a complete human being. Torah is about the head, ritual is about the body, and acts of lovingkindness are about the heart. Simon is uniting our emotional, intellectual and physical selves into a healthy whole. Simon recognizes, though, that we each have different strengths. Some are more scholarly, others more athletics and others more emotionally connected. We can each make our own contribution in our own way. As long as we cherish each others gifts, instead of believing in the superiority of our own, the world will long endure.

Hearing the Sights-Music Page Updated

Hearing the Sights

This is an experiment based on a fascinating expression of synesthesia in the Bible. When the people were at Mount Sinai it says they “Saw the sounds.” I thought it might be interesting to look at the opposite, that they could hear what they saw.

I used a program called Photosounder which transforms visuals into sounds. I created some images in Photoshop and turned them into soundfiles, which I then sequenced with a number of effects.

Pirkei Avot: How the courage of our ancestors created Modern Judaism Part One


One of the most popular Jewish books is known as Pirkei Avot, normally translated as the Ethics of our Fathers. I am calling this series, though, the teachings of our ancestors. Women’s voices are missing directly from much of our textual tradition, but I believe that they still had a profound impact on how our sages thought about the world.

Pirkei Avot is found in just about every prayer book and is studied every Shabbat afternoon during the spring and summer. Its original location is in the Mishnah, the first great rabbinic work. It is not found in the sections that deal with ritual. It is in the section that covers legal ethics, including criminal cases and contracts, including weddings and divorce.

My theory is that it was originally written as a guide book for rabbis and judges to make sure that they were not abusing their power in these cases. The reason we still read it is that it teaches us that religion at its best can be a force for social justice and freedom, a guide for creating happier and more harmonious families and communities, and a method for personal spiritual transformation. We will look at Pirkei Avot in some depth over the coming months.

I am going to resist, at least for now, putting everything in further historical context and get to the teachings themselves. If they are not relevant now, then their history does not matter.

I will start in the middle of the first section of chapter one (the first part deals with what are largely political and historical issues).

The members of the Great Assembly said three things:

1-Be fair with the law.

2-Raise up many students.

3-Make a fence for the Torah.

Let’s look at these individually and then as a whole.

1- It seems pretty obvious that you should be balanced when judging. I cannot imagine judges saying they were unfair. I think our rabbis are implying that fair does not always mean that we judge every person the same way. It is almost like when you deal with your children. Do you do exactly the same thing for them, including disciplining, or do you figure out which is best for each individually? The first is easier and seems more fair, but the second is usually more effective and worth the effort.

2-This means that leaders have an obligation share their knowledge, and not just keep it for themselves. Knowledge is power, and is far too dangerous to remain in the hands of a few. There has to be a way that all citizens can have access to the knowledge that will allow them to judge their own leaders. Leaders are to be servants of the people, not the other way around.

3-At first, this seems like we should do things to protect the Torah, which is definitely one of the meanings. There is, though, another way of looking at fences. Fences protect the inside from the outside, but sometimes the outside from the inside. Our sages were concerned that there would be religious leaders who would justify their bad behavior by using and distorting texts of the Torah. Our sages wanted to be sure that the Torah would be a tool and support for the people, not a weapon against them.

These statements show a great deal of courage by our sages and a deep understanding of how to make people feel empowered to make their own decisions, yet still feel connected to our tradition. It is their example which will determine the future of Judaism as a viable way to live, or a relic for the museum.

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