Rabbis are just like other people in that each has his own personality, strengths and interests. Rabbi Binyamin Lau’s popular Pirkei Avot classes in Jerusalem, published in multiple volumes in Hebrew and now in English translation, explore the unique character of individual sages of the Mishnah. Many books have combed through rabbinic literature, piecing through the many, often contradictory, texts to build biographies of these great rabbis. Rabbi Lau, armed with a doctorate in Talmud and a familiarity with academic historical literature, takes a very different approach. He searches for the key themes that each sage taught, the expression of his unique personality.
In prior volumes, Rabbi Lau’s interpretations appeared very political. As Professor Daniel Schwartz wrote in the foreword to the first volume, Rabbi Lau does not engage in pure history but rather mixes it with preaching. He teaches what I call “homiletical history,” in which Mishnaic debates conveniently echo contemporary Israeli themes, often supporting Rabbi Lau’s positions on various social and religious issues. In this third volume, however, the author takes a more literary approach, analyzing the texts for key themes without mentioning politics. For example, in the chapter about Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi), Rabbi Lau did not use Rashbi’s reported long confinement in a cave and devotion to a Torah-only life as a platform to discuss the kollel lifestyle. While the chapter on Beruriah perhaps overstates her scholarly achievements, it does not even subtly advocate for women’s advanced Torah studies. Rabbi Lau’s long discussion of Beruriah’s suspicious suicide is sober and unbiased rather than defensive.
The homiletics in the prior volumes were clever but unsatisfying, ultimately an imposition of contemporary concerns on ancient scholars. This latest volume demonstrates the full force of Rabbi Lau’s innovative literary approach to rabbinic historical biography.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and runs TorahMusings.com. He is a member of the Jewish Action editorial board.