Avot, Ibn Ezra, and Being a Mentch

This year Haaretz did not translate their 2009 Rosh Hashanah Jewish culture supplement with its book reviews. The Hebrew edition had some interesting articles, including one by Etkes and a funky one by Haviva Pedaya. But this week they did translate their November 2009 literary supplement. There was a certain gentleness to all their choices. Here are three of the reviews.

The first review is on the new edition of Pirkei Avot that has been a runaway bestseller this Fall. It reminds us of the Israeli project of creating a Jewish cultural heritage, when the books by Dvir and Bialek Presses: Sefer HaAgadah, Sefer HaZemanin on the holidays, Mishnat HaZohar Sifrei Dorot, were on every shelf. They let the Jewish reader approach the Jewish classics outside of yeshiva, orthodoxy, and authority, the way we approach penguin paperback classics. So it is nice to know that the Pirkei Avot is a best seller. Dinur, creator of the Israeli educational curriculum, Beit Hatefuzot, and Yad VaShem, created the older edition. The review has a nice sense of the role of Avot and rabbinic literature on our proverbs and wisdom.

The art of succinct statements By Zvia Walden

Pirkei Avot: Perush Yisraeli Hadash , edited and annotated by Avigdor Shinan Yedioth Ahronoth Books and the Avi Chai Foundation,

“A fundamental challenge facing our generation — living in a country that also happens to be our ances­tral homeland — is figuring out the proper ways to preserve the spiritual and moral image of the individual and society in Israel.” Does this not sound very contemporary and disturbingly relevant? Yet these words were written in 1972 by Prof. Ben-Zion Dinur, who served as Israel’s third minister of education (1951-1955 ) and who initiated the draft­ing of the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Law in 1953, which officially established Yad Vashem. That same year, Dinur was also responsible for the law that established public education in Israel, in the wake of which the various ideological streams were united into a single school system.

Dinur made the preceding observation in the introduction to his annotated and explicated edition of Tractate Avot of the Mishna, that is, Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers ). He noted that he had begun work on the edition back in 1917-18, when he was teaching at the Tarbut teachers training college in Kiev. He continued his efforts when he served as a lecturer at the Hebrew teachers seminar in Jerusalem (today the David Yellin Teachers College). Which is to say that Israel once had a liberal-minded education minis­ter, one who had actually taught (for years ) in teachers training schools. He diligently prepared his commentaries from a his­torical perspective, because he believed that knowledge of their context was crucial for under­standing their content. Imagine if we had cabinet ministers like that today.

Shinan’s new commentary on Pirkei Avot has featured prom­inently on the Israeli bestseller lists for weeks.

How can one explain the suc­cess of a volume such as Shinan’s? Is it due to the ever-growing thirst to “preserve the spiritual and moral image of the individual and society in Israel,” as Dinur had it? Or is it due to the acces­sible writing style of the editor, a professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University? Or, per­haps native Hebrew speakers are attracted to this edition because Shinan chose to devote much at­tention to the Hebrew text and to connecting the tractate to names, places and landscapes in Israel, while sufficing with only a brief survey of Pirkei Avot’s tradi­tional commentators?

Phrases from Pirkei Avot have penetrated deep into modern Hebrew, even if many of those doing the quoting are unaware of where they first appeared.. Many Hebrew speakers in Israel might quote the phrase, “Love work, and hate lordship,” but few know its continuation, “and make not thyself known to the government” (chapter 1:10 )

The late Levi Eshkol be­longed to the generation that was familiar with the phrase, “The ledger is open and the hand is writing,” but many of the Young Turks working at the Finance Ministry today, who may well believe that “the workmen are sluggish,” have no idea that “the master of the house is urgent” (2:18). We are part of a generation that has become cut off from its cultural roots; we must carry out the difficult work to amend the situation.

The second book reviewed is the Yesod Mora, a perennial Jewish classic on the need to have a broad education and the nature of mizvot. The book has fallen out of fashion in our era. Science, linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy were integrated into Torah. Ibn Ezra rejects the number 613 for the mizvot. He also criticizes the various Biblical and Talmudic scholars of his era for a too provincial education and worldview. Hananel Mack offers us the hypothetical of conjuring up the book that Ibn Ezra would write against the scholars of 2009.

Thirteen gates to infinity By Hananel Mack

Yesod Mora Abraham Ibn Ezra, edited by Uriel Simon Bar-Ilan University Press (Hebrew ), 272 pages, NIS 115

One of Ibn Ezra’s late works is “Yesod Mora Vesod Hatorah” (“Foundation of Awe and the Secret of the Torah” ), commonly called by the first two words of its name, a book dedicated to examining the essence of the commandments and their place in religious thought and at the foundation of Jewish belief.

According to the editor, Prof. Uriel Simon, an expert in research of the Bible and its com­mentaries, particularly the works of Ibn Ezra: ” His thinking is disjointed and jumpy, his arguments emotional, argumentative and associative, and his phrasing too abbrevi­ated, tending toward suggestion.”

According to him, a wise per­son’s approach to the holy writings and to religious philosophy requires a broad edu­cation encompassing all the branches of science, and must reject narrow-minded expertise in specific fields at the expense of others. This cosmopolitan position pre­vents those who do not share the breadth of Ibn Ezra’s perspective from properly understanding his writings, particularly those pertaining to philosophy and sci­ence.

According to Simon, “The first chapter is dedicated to a detailed proof of the re­ligious need for multidisciplinary educa­tion.” Toward that end, Ibn Ezra describes four types of “learned men of Israel” who specialize in narrow and defined fields of Torah and wisdom study but are unable to see the whole ensemble, and for whom, for this reason, even their fields of specializa­tion are found wanting.

Most of the remaining chapters deal with the Jewish religious mitzvot and their place in the system of belief and knowledge. Unlike other medieval books on the commandments, such as those of Rabbis Saadia Gaon, Maimonides and Nachmanides, here there is no discussion of halakha — religious law — and its minu­tiae; rather, the discussion is entirely on a theoretical level. Chapter two deals with the numbering of the commandments, wherein the scholar presents and criti­cizes the systems of several earlier “com­mandment-counters.”

Especially interesting is the status of the number 613, the traditional total number of all the commandments. The source of that enumeration is the homi­letical sermon of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shamlai…Unlike many other homiletical sermons, this one was accepted with great serious­ness, although there were some who saw in Shamlai’s words a tale not to be taken too seriously; Ibn Ezra belonged to the lat­ter.

The afterword added to the new edition deals with the text’s polemical side. Simon draws to­gether the main points of criticism, some of it bitter, leveled by Ibn Ezra against the majority of learned scholars in Israel and Christian Europe, and to a lesser extent also those in Spain, for their tendency to over-specialization and for their lack of systematic education in the sciences.

Contemporary readers are invited to imagine the criticism, tongue-lashing and overt disdain that would have been elicit­ed from Ibn Ezra had he foreseen current trends in the world of Torah and yeshiva study.

Finally, an interview with Michael Wex, author of “Born to Kvetch.” “Just Say Nu,” and this fall “How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck ) (Harper, 224 pages, $24 ). Wex discusses how Yiddish culture valued character, being a mentch, and being.ehrliche.  They use to say frumkeit is for the galah, a yid is ehrliche. And a litvish lamdan was called a “tzelemer kop.” Wax points out the role of Pirkei Avot, that the average Jew was not learned and to avoid khnoykishkay.

Questions & Answers: A conversation with Michael Wex

Judaism is all about refinement of character and becoming a better person; if performing ritual or ceremonial com­mandments or studying all day is not mak­ing you a better person, then there’s some­thing wrong with the way you’re doing it. And we’ve got a couple of thousand years of popular ethical manuals, starting with Pirkei Avot, to help show average people the right way to do things.

Post-Holocaust we’ve been given a rosy picture of pre-Hitler life in Europe, in which every Jew was a talmid haham [learned person]. That just wasn’t the case. People stammered out the prayers, but didn’t necessarily know that they meant. Much of the joke with Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye is that he’s always mistranslating biblical verses and rabbinic sayings, and people still argue about whether or not he — Tevye, I mean — was supposed to be doing so on purpose. What you got as a sort of counterbalance to the traditional exaltation of scholarship, was this idea that character is as important as anything else. This is re­ally just an idea that was re-expressed, that regained prominence, in early Hasidism. I talk a little about earlier instances of it, and the way people looked at things. In part it’s the idea about having the basic Jewish common sense to know when something of anything is too much. You look at some­thing like the story in the Talmud about the destruction of Jerusalem, about Kamtso and Bar Kamtso. Ultimately it turned on a piece of khnoykishkayt [hypocritical sanc­timoniousness], about being punctilious about the wrong things at the wrong time.

2 responses to “Avot, Ibn Ezra, and Being a Mentch

  1. Are you sure it isn’t, “Mensch?”

    • A quick google search indicates that in English it gets the “t” – real Yiddish is without.
      Even Wex spells it with the “t”

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