from the book
Ethics of the Fathers
We already don’t know what the Torah is. Whether the Ten Commandments or the book of Deuteronomy. Does it include the five books of Moses only, or those of Nevi’im – prophets, Kings, Ketuvim and the other books and scrolls included in what we know as the Mikra. We don’t know its basic principles and limitations. At the time of the second Temple (approximately 400 BCE – 100 CE) Pharisees and Sadducees were involved in heated arguments. While both agreed that the Written Law – the Torah, was given on mount Sinai, they disagreed about its interpretation. The Pharisees claimed to have an oral tradition given to Moses alongside the written one, in light of which the Torah should be interpreted, while the Sadducees preferred an interpretation free of any tradition. No-one objected to the need to interpret the Written Law, to adjust it to the changing theological-political conditions, but they were divided about the source of interpretation, its divine sources, and modes. For the Pharisees, it was more spiritual-ritual, less shackled by the literal meaning, sensitive to the Jewish diaspora and its links to Eretz-Israel; Sadducee interpretation was more legalistic, sensitive to the literal meaning, considerate of the full or partial sovereignty of the Jews in their land. It can be assumed that both had some written documents. However, the Pharisees famously refused to put down in writing their ancestors’ traditions, to preserve the innovativeness of their interpretations, and to prevent the fossilization of the Torah. One principle of their teaching is: “Even that which a veteran student is destined to teach before his master — were all told to Moses at Sinai” (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah, 2,4). The debates between Pharisees and Sadducees came to an end with the disappearance of the last, and some of their traditions were incorporated into the Pharisees’ ancestor’s traditions.
At its origin, the Oral Law was disseminated orally, and was put in writing only for private purposes. Later its writing was authorized in order to avoid it from being forgotten. This is mainly a treasure trove of interpretations, homiletic exegesis (Midrash), and Jewish Law (Halacha) all stored in the Mishna and Talmud. The source of the authorization to put the Oral Law in writing, is found, among others, in the following: “For R. Johanan and Resh Lakish used to peruse the book of Haggadah on Sabbaths, and explained (their attitude) in this manner: [Scripture says:] It is time for the Lord to work, they have made void thy law, explaining this as follows: It is better that one letter of the Torah should be uprooted than that the whole Torah should be forgotten” (Babylonian, T’murah 14b). The writing of the Oral Law had somewhat diminished its vitality, development and renewal, leading to the birth of a huge corpus of legal, lore and philosophical literature, sometimes overburdening one’s reasoning and discretion. The Pharisees were aware of this danger already two thousand years ago: “If a person asks you why the sayings of Sofrim were not put into writing, like the Torah was? Tell him: because one cannot encompass all their wisdom; as is written: ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body’ (Ecclesiastes 12, 12) (Bamidbar Rabbah 14, 4).
One may only find solace in the uploading of the extensive rabbinical exegesis literature to the Internet, and in the refinement of the search engines.
It is customary to distinguish in the Torah, between narratives and those sections dealing with laws and commandments; and in the Oral Law, between lore and legal sections. Very many founding Midrashim draw the atmosphere in which a Jew refers to the Holy Scriptures, whether the Written or the Oral Law. If the Torah is God given, is literally the Word of God, then it foresaw everything, considered everything, referred to everything. Its disciple feels that the Torah has seventy faces, and by a scholastic effort one may discover one of its hidden faces, thus receiving an answer to his personal question. The original assumption was that as long as it remains oral, the Oral Law establishes a direct and a creative link to the Written Law, thus creating a new ownership in it, to such an extent that the disciple sees himself as its owner, producing new interpretations, renewing it in the process: “At the beginning (of this verse) the Torah is assigned to the Holy One, blessed be He, but at the end it is assigned to him (who studies it)” (Babylonian’ Avodah Zarah 19a).
One cannot avoid being excited by the sophistication of the early exegetes. This was a rather free interpretation, not too considerate of the literal meaning. Our sages of Blessed Memory, deconstructed the text arbitrarily, breaking all rules, and reconstructed it according to their circumstances. They were neither deterred by Talmudical Hermeneutics, nor by miracles or divine voices, but felt free to employ constructive interpretations, circumventing the text and changing its meaning. Our sages of Blessed Memory, were occupied, according to Heinemann, with “Creative Philology” assuming the greatness of the Torah. They used to attribute their innovations to Moses, as told in the following Midrash:
Rab Judah said in the name of Rab, When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing coronets to the letters. Said Moses, “Lord of the Universe, Who stays Thy hand?” He answered, “There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiba son of Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws.” “Lord of the Universe,” said Moses; “permit me to see him.” He replied, “Turn thee round.” Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [and listened to the discourses upon the law]. Not being able to follow their arguments, he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master “Whence do you know it?” and the latter replied “It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai” he was comforted (Babylonian, Menachoth 29b).
Our sages of Blessed Memory knew what they were doing while disrupting the text. A hidden meaning hides behind their hermeneutical rioting, expressing confusion, and creativity at the same time. The oral Law expresses, whether we like it or not, reservations about the Written Law, unwilling to be shackled by the written word, and pursuing innovation and exegesis, exegesis and innovation. Exegetical philology never gives in, never raises an eyebrow, and is never deterred by innovations. Our sages of Blessed Memory were the original deconstructionists, much more daring and informative than their colleagues in the twentieth century, be they either Levinas or Deridda. Their sobering sometimes borders on licentiousness, and they took, sometimes happily, extreme heretical risks. I am in no hurry to accept the thesis that: “Our sages of Blessed Memory intended to expose the eternal value of the verses, their agreement with the ever changing circumstances, so that we too may solve, with their help, issues pertaining to our lives.” They were facing a crises – theological-political – and tried coping with it. Rather than an outlook, they prepared, exegetically, to assure the eternity of their people. Urgency and bustle yielded that controlled rioting, in an attempt to cover the undermining of faith, opinions, and hopes, at least among the outstanding exegetes. Any religion, be it the most rational and universal, can only cope with the secrets of human existence, by enveloping them with even more fantastical theologies. The spirit inspiring the Oral Law is the essence, and analogous to the Holy Spirit, even if very different in its effects.
Ethics of the Fathers
Even before R. Judah ha-Nasi redacted, around the year 200 CE, the first layer of the oral exegesis – the Mishnah – it was called by the Tannaim, “Tradition of our ancestors,” and in the post-Mishnaic period, the period of the Amorain and Geonim, when the struggle between the Rabbinic and the Karaite Judaism was at its apex, it was named the “Oral Law.” It is acknowledged therefore the Moses received the Written Law on Mount Sinai, alongside it oral interpretation, and passed it on for future generations to those taking hold and teaching it. Already at its first verse, Tractate “Ethics of the Fathers,” refers to its evolution:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly (Avot 1,1)
Ethics of the Fathers is promptly revealed as an anthology of aphorisms by the greatest Tannaim, the moral-intellectual fabric of Judaism, even if these aphorisms are not always compatible, occasionally even contradictory. Various attempts to pinpoint a guiding line failed. Each reader is fascinated by a different verse, interpreting it in his own way, in the changing circumstances of his life. Most scholars tend to see in the “Ethics of the Fathers” a set of moral principles, a guide to life imbued with gentility, and to a sober piousness. A book of good manners for any human being; a guide to a righteous life, to overcoming doubts; to good heartedness. It is largely Hillel the Elder’s book, being foremost among his colleagues the Pharisees:
He would also say: One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases possessions, increases worry; one who increases wives, increases witchcraft; one who increases maidservants, increases promiscuity; one who increases man-servants, increases thievery; one who increases Torah, increases life; one who increases study, increases wisdom; one who increases counsel, increases understanding; one who increases charity, increases peace. One who acquires a good name, acquired it for himself; one who acquires the words of Torah, has acquired life in the World to Come (2, 7).
We should not be misled by the Tractate’s name. Its topic are not the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaak, and Jacob, but those forefathers who shaped Judaism, from Moses to R. Judah ha-Nasi, redactor of the Mishnah. Its name probably derives from the Pharisee term “Masoert Avot.” It is the ninth tractate within Seder Nezikin, and in contrast to other tractate which are mostly legalistic, “Ethics of the Fathers” is about morality, virtues, and good manners. Originally it was divided into five chapters, and over the years, some short paragraphs were joined into a sixth. It is a compilation of short teachings and maxims by the sages, called Tannaim. The first chapter proceeds by generations, from the Great Assembly through the Zugot to the first Nasi’s (Princes in Biblical Hebrew). The second chapter proceeds in a chronological order. Mostly it seems that the aphorisms are the mottoes of their composers.
The tractate contains principles of general wisdom, such as was uttered by Chinese and Indian sages: virtues, life style, and manners, education and learning, human relations and Man’s attitude to his creator. The general principle is the ascendance of morality over study: lacking a foundation of human natural morality, derived from Man’s culture and conscience, the Torah loses its authority, and we are not deserving of it. R. Jose said, “Whosoever says that he has no [desire to study the] Torah, has no [reward for the study of the] Torah” (Babylonian, Yebamot, 109B). This postulate does not undermine the Jewish ethos of learning: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1, 8). One may study and become wise, study and discover, study and act, study and enjoy, even study and innovate, as long as innovation is not the purpose of learning but its reflection – absent-mindedly. Studying the Torah is above everything, a magical-liturgical aura clings to it, imparting honor to its student. “One who is pleasing to his fellow men, is pleasing to G-d,” says our Mishnah (3, 10), rather than “”One who is pleasing to G-d is pleasing to his fellow men.” Abiding by the moral instructions of “Ethics of the Fathers” is a daily challenge, not be achieved by going through the motions.
Though one feels that each aphorism is to the point, not requiring an elaboration, many compositions were written about the Ethics of the Fathers. As other books of wisdom in other nations, are often quoted nowadays, the Ethics of the Fathers enjoys a new popularity with the spread of the digital culture, and the somewhat frivolous inclination to make do with fine words
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