Pirkei Avot is a Dangerous Book

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09 Jan 2018

I recently made a surprising discovery: Pirkei Avot is a dangerous book.

Sure, we call it “Ethics of Our Fathers,” which sounds fairly positive. And we regularly encourage our children to learn it, often giving them copies at the tender age of 12 or 13 without a second thought. But as my (adult) students recently pointed out in the course of our studies, there is a real danger in offering this collection of statements from our Rabbis to anyone who might actually take the teachings to heart.

In fact, they raised these concerns even before we got to the caution against conversation with women, which is the one I had expected to raise some eyebrows.

For example, earlier in that mishna (1:5), we are advised to open our homes to the poor and treat them as members of our household. What if someone reads that, my students asked, and takes it so seriously that they pour their resources into caring for the poor and neglect their own children? And of course, the line about conversation with women did not escape them. What if someone reads that and takes it as license to think women are lesser, inferior, nothing more than a danger to men’s spiritual pursuits?

Their questions reminded me of one of my favorite midrashic passages. In Bereishit Rabbah 8:8, Rabbi Yochanan describes a dialogue that ensued when Moshe was writing the Torah and was told to write that G-d said “let us make Man” (Bereishit 1:26). “Master of the Worlds,” he exclaimed, “Why are You giving an opening to heretics?!” Why put a pasuk in the Torah that people might take as an indication that there is more than one deity? G-d responded, “Write it, and anyone who wants to err, will err!”

Sure, Pirkei Avot is dangerous, and can lend support to harmfully extreme viewpoints. But if we think about it, the Torah is dangerous too! The midrash indicates unequivocally that polytheism is erroneous – yet the pasuk is there, waiting to lead people to that heretical error. Is the answer, then, to not teach these books? Pull Pirkei Avot from the shelves, pull the Torah itself from the shelves? Or maybe the answer is that we ignore the danger, and say – like G-d Himself seems to in this midrash – that it’s not our responsibility, we will simply give over the information and if people take it the wrong way, then that’s their problem.

Of course not.

The real answer, I think, has three parts, all indicated by the midrash itself.

First, note the phrasing – “anyone who wants to err, will err.” That word, “want,” is highly suggestive, as it reminds us that we humans are not objective readers. We come to any text with our preconceived ideas, and it can be an immense challenge to approach a text with true intellectual honesty and overcome the inclination to hear what we want to hear. Moshe isn’t worried about a stam reader drawing the wrong conclusions from this phrasing; he is worried that “heretics,” who already have their ideas in hand, will see it and say “Yes! Point for us!” Because, as G-d affirms, they want to err. And sometimes there is nothing we can do about that; sometimes, if someone really wants to take a statement a certain way, we will indeed just have to let that happen.

BUT – only if there is a good reason for making the statement.

After seeming to shut down Moshe’s concern, G-d actually reopens the dialogue and explains that He wants the pasuk phrased this way for a purpose. He is not doing it to create some sort of test for heretics, but to offer a lesson to those who don’t “want to err,” who are genuinely trying to learn. (There will always be people of different status, He explains, and someone of a higher status might think there is no need to consult with others who are on a lower level. The Creator and Master of all portrays Himself as having sought input, to remind us to do the same.) This, I think, is part two of the answer: there could be a reason behind a particular formulation that is worth learning from, even if the superficial meaning might be misleading.

Several lines later, the midrash presents a different series of dialogues that illustrate part three, arguably the most important piece of the puzzle. Rabbi Simlai engaged in discussion with heretics who challenged basic tenets, such as monotheism, based on pesukim from the Torah itself. They asked about that “let us create”; they even asked about the very Name “Elokim,” which is technically a plural word. Rabbi Simlai points out in response that “every place you find an opening to heretics, you find the answer alongside it.” After the introduction “let us make Man,” we are told “ויברא אלקים את האדם”: the singular form of “created” is used to tell us that “Elokim” made Man. There is no “us” in creation; the use of that word was a rhetorical device, and that will become apparent if we only keep reading.

Rabbi Simlai, I think, offers what is really the ultimate answer to my students’ concerns: keep searching. The same Torah which in one line might seem to convey one idea, might in the very next line balance that implication with another side, calling upon us, the readers, to work out how both can be true. We do that work by questioning and exploring. Maybe we figure something out ourselves; maybe we turn to the centuries of Torah writings that preceded us, and find that we are rarely the first to think of our questions. Maybe we find a neat answer, and maybe truth will always feel a little messy. To borrow the words of the Orach Chaim (Vayikra  26:3), our mandate is to “follow all the roads and paths in explaining Scriptures, and not say there is nothing in the Torah except the peshat that is understood to all.” Never assume we got it at first glance; never assume we’re done with a text.

To return to our examples: Does Pirkei Avot advocate opening one’s house to the poor? Sure. But if we aren’t looking, on some level, to justify an already present inclination – if we don’t “want to err” – then we should remember that there is likely more than meets the eye. We might explore the specific lesson(s) conveyed by this particular phrasing, as well as how to achieve appropriate balance between this value and others that might seem to conflict. We may then find that Rabbenu Yonah suggests the phrasing of this line is really about the manner in which one should interact with the poor, not necessarily about the amount we give; we might also discover that Rambam interprets it completely differently, as a suggestion that one should hire poor people instead of buying slaves. We might even delve into the halachot of tzedaka and remember that caring for one’s family does come first. (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 251)

Are we (well, men) similarly advised not to “increase conversation with a woman”? Sure, but one has to ask: In what context? What societal assumptions might underlie this statement, and how might different realities alter the application of the message? (See, for instance, Rambam’s commentary on this mishna, which begins with the assumption that husbands talk to their wives primarily in the context of physical intimacy.) And we might well ask, as Rav Hirsch does: How does this mishna relate to all the indications in our mesorah that a man should regard his wife with the highest esteem? Rav Hirsch goes on to suggest we pay closer attention to the precise wording before jumping to conclusions: It is specifically “sicha,” idle chatter, that should be minimized, specifically because a man should respect his wife enough to make sure to discuss meaningful topics with her. Suddenly, the line means the opposite of what a casual reader might have thought – and we might never have thought of that reading if we didn’t think of taking the time to ask, to keep learning and searching.

We might never discover the depths of nuanced, complex truths in our mesorah if we shy away from the implications drawn at first glance.

As it happens, Pirkei Avot itself contains recognition of the dangers inherent in any teaching. In Avot 1:11, Avtalyon warns “Sages, be cautious with your words,” lest your students misunderstand and come to grave error, even desecration of G-d’s Name. What he does not say, however, is not to speak at all. Certainly, there is a responsibility on the part of an author, speaker, or teacher to be careful with wording – and there is similarly a responsibility on the part of the reader, audience, or student to pay attention, to remember it is impossible to say everything all at once, and to ask when something seems odd – as, sometimes, it should.

What we need is not to abandon our studies of traditional texts that might imply irresponsible or extreme viewpoints, or stop exposing our children to them. Of course not. What we need is to recognize complexity. To remember that whatever we read in one line is likely given a different twist in another line, and likely Torah scholars have limited or balanced the applications of each line in practice. We need to learn more, not less. And most of all, we need to teach our children, as we pass our sacred texts on to them, to do the same.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.