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Thursday, 21 December 2017

Pirkei Avot – A Critique

The Mishnah known as “Ethics of the Fathers” or more literally, the chapters of the fathers, forms a central part of Rabbinic ethics and thought. It is so important that it is read regularly in Synagogues  in the summer months, and is part of the standard Siddur.

It contains some interesting ideas, and is certainly reminiscent of the Stoic philosophers, who presumably had some influence on rabbinic thought. The rabbis claim that this is an endogenous part of the Torah, but this is disputable.

I would like to refer to one particular statement which is part of the rabbinic approach to economics, but also to psychology.

From Ch.3:

1. Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): "From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation."
Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), "Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city."
Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated (Psalms 128:2): "If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you"; "fortunate are you" in this world, "and good is to you" in the World to Come.

Whilst the first clause is logical, and the second is a discussion of Proverbs, the 3rd clause is the problematic one.

It is claiming to be based on Psalm 128, however, it is telling an entirely different story. The psalm is saying that one who earns his own living is fortunate, and if he sustains a wife and family he will be happy, and blessed.

The Mishnah is taking this out of context, and redefining the meaning of wealth.
A quick look at an online dictionary will define “rich” as “having a lot of money or valuable possessions”

This is the common understanding of the term “rich” or “wealthy”. Indeed, the Torah , in Deut 28, included wealth , as we understand it, and as the online dictionary defines it, as part of the blessing for observing the Torah:

“11 And the LORD will make thee over-abundant for good, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land, in the land which the LORD swore unto thy fathers to give thee.”

This is real economic wealth, not New Testament style denial, e.g. “ we don’t have peace, but I’ve found peace in my heart”.

The next verse is even more powerful:

12 The LORD will open unto thee His good treasure the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season, and to bless all the work of thy hand; and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow.

This is talking about our Lord’s treasure, and not having credit card debts, rather the freedom of having no debts, and having abundant finances to live out one’s life.

The rabbinic version of wealth, at least as far as Avot is concerned, pays no attention to real life – because the rabbis are not concerned with real life. It is a monastic and ascetic form of denial, which they are trying to impose on their followers. Being happy with one’s lot is not always a good thing.  If one has a bad lot, then being unhappy with it might raise the chances of improving it than being in a state of denial and acceptance. And this is taught in yeshivot and by rabbis, to denounce all worldly wealth and ambition.  However, there is a duplicity in this also, since at the same time, collections are made for yeshivas, for poor families, for those yeshiva youngsters who wish to get married. I have never heard of Rabbis collecting for secular Jews who are poor and wish to get married.

There is no easy or guaranteed formula to achieve wealth. Poverty can affect all kinds of people. Being happy with poverty is a very strange and inhuman outlook. It contradicts the logic, but also contradicts the Torah.

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