Lately, in a spirit of “know your enemy”, I downloaded Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. To my surprise, the first of its three epigraphs comes from a work I have been recommending to people recently – that section of Talmud known as “Sayings of the Fathers,” which is included in the Jewish prayerbook for Sabbath afternoon reading. Though of a very different spirit from Rules for Radicals, Sayings of the Fathers has always seemed to me like a manual for action – in this case, a manual for surviving tyranny and building something that may outlast it.
Pirkei Avot (the Hebrew title) was put together in the wake of social ruin. After two failed rebellions, the Judean commonwealth was destroyed and its people scattered to the four winds (and they didn’t have Internet). Starting around 200 CE, a group of scholars decided to commit to writing a body of teachings that had previously been handed down orally. The result of their efforts over several centuries was the Talmud, of which Pirkei Avot is a part. The main bulk of the Talmud is concerned with civil and ritual law, but Pirkei Avot deals with general principles (“Avot” – fathers – can also mean “principles”). Over the succeeding centuries, the study of Talmud and related works has held the Jewish people together. The Roman empire is gone, but the nation that studies Talmud survives.
As citizens of the USA, we are living in a moment somewhat like that in which Pirkei Avot was formulated. Over the last few decades the Republic has been falling in slow motion, as government by representatives of the people has given way to government by some conglomerate of interests -- Big Pharma, Big Tech, Big Media -- that is not responsible to the people and that works consistently to destroy any meaningful connections among us. We have the Internet; but to date, for some reason, it seems to be connecting us in a shallow and often destructive manner.
In this situation, Pirkei Avot has much to say to us, both as individuals and as a society. It is framed as moral guidance for individuals, but the guidance is aimed at pointing the individual toward constructive action in society. While some things in Pirkei Avot are specifically pointed at the Jewish practitioner, there is much that is deeply relevant to anyone who wants to be part of a lasting resistance to manipulation and unreason.
The advice of Pirkei Avot revolves around two basic assignments: the intellectual effort of study (“Torah,” a word that means literally “teaching”) and a careful attention to human interactions. These two are related; for Torah, though the word refers first of all to one authoritative text, is also a conversation. Everyone concerned with the future of society is a partner in that conversation. Pirkei Avot itself is structured as an intergenerational conversation. Most of the sayings are attributed to specific rabbis who lived during the Second Temple period and up till the codification of the Mishna, and they reflect various nuances of viewpoint and emphasis.
As said, much of Pirkei Avot centers on the value of Torah study. For our purposes, the concept of “Torah” could be expanded to include any writings that illumine our predicament and suggest remedies. Perhaps we could put together a “canon” of useful books. Each of us could begin by making a personal list, and then we could compare notes.
Torah study and sociality are closely interwoven. Several sayings express an expectation that social life should be devoted to the sharing of teachings. One says that if people sit at table and do not exchange teachings, they are considered to have eaten idolatrous sacrifices!
In the domain of human interactions, Pirkei Avot at outset lists “deeds of kindness” as one of the three things by which the world is sustained. Perhaps the greatest number of sayings, however, is concerned in one way or other with humility. The litmus test of humility is the ability to recognize the qualities of others. One saying recommends: “Appoint thee a teacher and get thee a companion.” It is important for each person to recognize someone as a teacher; commentators go so far as to say that if need be, one should recognize as teacher someone who knows no more than oneself! Similarly, one should exert oneself to get a friend even if it means “paying” someone to be one’s friend! Society is built up of lasting bonds between individuals. This saying concludes: “… and give everyone the benefit of the doubt.” There is another saying that warns us to steer clear of an evil person. But to believe in the good in people is fundamental to every hopeful vision of society. (In contrast, the Alinsky approach divides people into oppressors and oppressed and perpetuates conflict.)
Several sayings emphasize the responsibility of every person for recognizing good leaders. “Be tail to lions and not head to foxes.” (Contrast Julius Caesar’s saying that he would rather be first in a small Iberian village than second in Rome.) Several sayings condemn the seeking of honor and leadership. Leadership needs to be conferred by recognition, not won in contests for power. On the other hand, the individual is urged to take responsibility when no one else seems to be in charge. “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” (This is the one Alinsky quotes. “Man,” incidentally, translates the word ish, which can connote “responsible person.”)
Between individualism and collectivism, Pirkei Avot takes a middle position. “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” The individual is expected to have interests and defend them; total altruism is not expected. Yet the individual life gains meaning only in relation to that of the community. One is urged not to separate oneself from the community and not to rely on one’s own understanding, but to consult with others and to accept the opinion of the majority.
One saying reads like a set of “traffic rules” for meaningful discussion: “There are seven traits of a boor, and seven traits of a wise man. A wise man does not speak before a superior in wisdom or years. He does not interrupt another. He is not in haste to answer. His questions are on the subject and his answers to the point. He responds to first things first and to last things last. Concerning what he does not understand, he says "I do not understand." He acknowledges the truth. With the boor, the opposite of all these is the case.” This sounds a little like Robert’s Rules of Order, except that while Robert’s rules are externally imposed, those of Pirkei Avot are rooted in the character of the individual.
Notice that this blueprint for community is not entirely “egalitarian.” People are expected to recognize, and defer to, those who know more than they do. There is a hierarchy; but it is established by people looking up, not down. Looking down on people, in fact, is frowned upon: “Despise no man… For there is no man who has not his hour.” In an association with a constructive purpose, every person has something to contribute, everyone has some job to do; to reject anyone who wants to help is to waste resources.
Those wishing to get society off its current death trip could do worse than form study groups, to study Pirkei Avot among other things. This may not seem like a response to the urgent problems created by Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Media, etc. It won’t immediately get pornography out of the schools, pro-crime prosecutors out of office, or the perpetrators of the “pandemic” in jail. But over time, students of Pirkei Avot might build up a responsible presence in the community and acquire the capability of identifying sincere and competent leaders and preparing remedial measures that would eventually be adopted. And their efforts would center on the matter that is at the heart of all the problems -- the matter of human dignity, which is rooted in the belief that humans were created in God’s image.
The path mapped out in Pirkei Avot contrasts sharply with that recommended in Rules for Radicals. While the latter professes to pursue social justice, the tactics it recommends are tactics of disruption, which in the long run make for chaos. Pirkei Avot recommends, instead, a buildup of character, relationships, and knowledge -- the creation of lasting value. As one saying puts it, “Every assembly that is for the sake of Heaven will endure; every assembly that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure.”
Esther Cameron is a writer and a dual citizen of Israel and the USA, living in Jerusalem. Her detailed commentary on Pirkei Avot can be found at http://www.derondareview.org/avot21.htm. Her email address is email@example.com.
Photo credit: Lawrie Tate CC BY 2.0 license