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.