J-BOM stands for Jewish Book of the Month Club and is a term coined by young MJ blogger Yahnatan Lasko for a movement of bloggers and readers working through great Jewish books together. The April selection is Visions of the Fathers by Abraham Twerski. I have suggested that busy people start with an abbreviated reading of Twerski. The readings for the first part of April include: Introduction, 1:1, 1:2, 1:6, 1:10, 1:11, 1:12, and 1:14.
The May selection will be The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendehlson.
The June selection will be As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg.
The July selection will be Chaim Potok’s The Promise.
The August selection will be The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart.
Visions of the Fathers is a commentary on Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), a tractate of the Mishnah dealing with ethics and wisdom from the Tannaitic sages. The commentary is by Abraham Twerski, a Hasidic rabbi and a psychiatrist whose specialty is substance abuse and addiction.
Ethical wisdom is the missing ingredient in the religion of many Jews and Christians. Many people think of ethics in some limited sense, such as principles of business which will keep you out of trouble but which can be broken as long as you can get away with it.
Properly speaking, ethical wisdom brings us down to the core issues of motivations, beliefs, consequences, and glorification of God rather than self.
Twerski says in his introduction:
We come into this world with many physical drives inherent within us. It is a major task to exert restraint on our natural inclinations, and furthermore to transform them and direct their energies into the proper channels.
Pirkei Avot is like the Proverbs of the Mishnah. For the most part, its sayings reflect deep reflection on scriptural and practical ideas of holiness in living out God’s commands.
It is possible to disagree with the sages. Pirkei Avot is not a sacred text in our community. It is a traditional text.
Twerski’s text uses terms that may be unfamiliar to some readers. I will define two very quickly as they recur again and again.
Chassidus refers to Hasidic teaching. It includes kabbalah, speculation on the levels of divine glory and how to perceive God’s glory in mystical rapture. It also includes much ethical teaching. Chassidus is a form of Jewish teaching dealing with practical and spiritual matters primarily. In many ways it was a reaction to a Judaism which had become too intellectual, too philosophical.
Mussar is a biblical word meaning discipline. It refers to a movement and body of literature about ethics and godly living which was also a reaction to an overly intellectual Judaism.
In coming posts we will review some of the ethical and spiritual highlights of both Pirkei Avot and Twerski’s commentary. By way of review, let me simply say that Twerski’s words are worthy of a slow and careful reading and rereading. I should think that Visions of the Fathers would be an annual choice for J-BOM.
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“Pirkei Avot is not a sacred text in our community. It is a traditional text.”
What is “our community” in this context?
I wondered about the same thing, Carl. If even an inanimate object can become sacred (another word for “holy”) when coming in contact with something holy, surely these particular teachings and wisdom of our fathers based as they are on the Torah and passed down to us from the sages, can be considered sacred (special/set apart/OURS) by the MJ community.
I mean the MJ community. I think I speak broadly when I say the MJ community regards Mishnah as traditional literature and not sacred text. I welcome dissent.
Wahooo! I’m still included through moral support and links. :-)
I just wasn’t familiar with the dichotomy “sacred/traditional.” Do people really express it that way? Anyway, I suppose you mean that it’s permissible in our community to disagree with the Mishnah because it isn’t Scripture?
At the same time, I speak broadly (smile) when I say that our community does not recognize the value of this tradition. I suspect that very few MJs are willing to embrace the tradition and treat it on a personal and congregational basis as “my/our tradition.” To make that statement would mean that the tradition, while it does not have the status of Scripture, would have to be taken way more seriously than it is.
As for me, I have my disagreements with the sages in part BECAUSE I take my their words. But I like to take a long time to learn before I take a stance of disagreement or critique.
I really love what y’all are doing with J-BOM,but now I realize why I was uncomfortable with the choice of Perkei Avot. But any traditional text is eaasi lyreduced in status by subjecting it to the same critique as ordinary books, however excellent those books may be.
That is, I have my disagreements with the sages in part BECAUSE I take their words so seriously. But I like to take a long time to learn before I take a stance of disagreement or critique.
(How come WordPress doesn’t have a Preview feature??
I think we’re saying the same thing. I think it is important to note that rabbinic literature has a different authority than scripture. I mention this because I know some J-BOM readers are going to have a problem with a verse here or there in Pirkei Avot.
I note, for example, the comment about not talking excessively with women. No amount of wiggling around the issue will convince me that this statement is completely kosher in its view of women. Of course, being honest, there are a few verses in scripture that are problematic there as well, such as Ecclesiastes 7:28.
Derek, you said:
>> I think it is important to note that rabbinic literature has a different authority than scripture.
It reminds me of this conversation you and I recently had:
Judah: Why do I not regularly wear a kippah, you ask? Because the sources for wearing a kippah is rabbinic literature, which doesn’t carry the same weight as a commandment from the lips of God.
Derek: What you are doing is what I have heard called by a respected mutual friend of yours and mine “silly, self-defined Torah observance.”
In other words, the rabbinic writings have authority in a complex set of variables about Torah life and practice. But that authority is not infallible and absolute in my system.
I agree with your comment about “no amount of wiggling, etc.” But I don’t think we’re saying the same thing at all.
At our rabbinical associate last year, we agreed unanimously that “at the core, a Messianic Jewish] rabbi is defined first and foremost by his or her relationship
to our sacred tradition and our community.” So, yes, in response to your original comment, I want to affirm that our tradition is sacred. Not flawless, but sacred, and it should be treated as sacred.
Twersky’s book is a wonderful commentary on Pirkei Avot. Anyone who can read English can read and assess it. But Pirkei Avot is another matter. As you know, it’s part of a very large body of inter-related texts. It simply can’t be deeply understood in isolation from those texts (or in English, for that matter). While 1:17 is clearly problematic, there are other verses that may appear problematic but can be understood and agreed with in light of (1) other rabbinic texts, especially of its time, or (2) the Hebrew text itself.
BTW, some of the problematic verses of Pirkei Avot may also be misunderstood and accepted as wise!
Treating our tradition as sacred ultimately required deep and serious study, as Pirkei Avot itself says repeatedly.
I think we’re just using the word sacred differently. So, let me rephrase what I said originally:
“It is possible to disagree with the sages. Pirkei Avot is not regarded as infallible in our community. But it is respected as a traditional and authoritative source.”
What a hoot! You made my day.
:-) Have a good shabbat, rabbi.
“I should think that Visions of the Fathers would be an annual choice for J-BOM.” Derek, I second that motion! At the mid-way point in the month I’m just finishing the first chapter (which I will be posting on soon). I have found great joy and practicality in this text and Twerski’s commentary (both of which I was unfamiliar with previously). Engaging and thinking through a work such as this will take much more than a month. Shalom Aleichem!