J-BOM: Extremism in Pirkei Avot?

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: Introduction, 1:1, 1:2, 1:6, 1:10, 1:11, 1:12, 1:14, 2:2, 2:4, 2:5, 2:9, and 2:15. Now add: 3:1, 3:3, 3:6, 3:8, 3:11, 3:13, 3:18.

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.

Sometimes, those zealous for a way of being holy can be guilty of extremism, of corrupting the balance of what is good.

I found this long ago during a phase of my life in which I read many of the Christian devotional masters. I found at times an unhealthy imbalance. Thomas a Kempis said that one should not have close friends. Friendship, he said, would be a distraction from God.

This kind of imbalance bothered me greatly. I regard friendship as one of the great loves. I find friendship to be one of the great principles of the Bible. I rejected Thomas’s advice.

In Pirkei Avot chapter 3 I find the potential for imbalance, zeal choosing one good to such an extreme that other good things are rendered evil.

Pirkei Avot 3:2 says, “When two people sit together and words of Torah are not exchanged between them, it is considered a session of scorners.”

I can accept this as hyperbole (deliberate exaggeration) and perhaps that is how it is intended. But I can think of many conversational topics other than Torah that are good, holy, pure, and beneficial. The idea that creation is bad and only “spiritual” things are good is a heresy, and one that does not fit with the overall structure of Judaism or Christianity.

It seems that some interpreters of this Mishnah agree with me at least in part and seek to disarm the extremism a bit. In The Metsudah Pieki Avos, the commenter says, “Scoffers in this Mishnah refers to persons who are unoccupied and meet for the sole purpose of engaging in idle conversation.” At least they suggest that people meeting to talk about work is allowed. But still, there is some suggestion that conversation about anything other than work or the words of Torah is “idle”.

Twerski does a much better job of moderating the extremism of Pirkei Avot 3:2. He suggests that life is busy, with work, family, rest, and devotion. He notes that rest and entertainment are good when part of a goal-directed life, and the proper goal is drawing ever nearer to God through engaging Torah, praying, and living out good deeds. So, he says the charge of scoffer is only directed at those who habitually drown out engagement of Torah, who do not order their life toward a goal of increasing engagement and devotion.

Further, he defines “words of Torah” broadly to include all conversation that is good, productive, and part of a God-directed life. Thus, conversation purely for joy could be considered “words of Torah” by Twerski’s definition.

Another place where there is potential for extremism in Pirkei Avot chapter 3 is in vs. 9: “One who walks on the road while reviewing [a Torah lesson] and interrupts his review, and exclaims, ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed furrow!’ scripture considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul.”

One could read this as, “Do not waste time that could be spent studying Torah on enjoying the beauty of creation.”

That is heresy. It is akin to the extremism I have occasionally found in the Christian devotional masters. I am not surprised to find that such extremism can occur in Jewish devotional writing also.

Twerski again moderates this potential extremism. It is when we are unduly enamored with nature, when we do not regard it through Torah, but see nature as an end in itself, that we are in violation of Pirkei Avot 3:9. When we admire a tree and our view of the tree is that this is a wonder of God, as spoken in Genesis, then we are continuing our devotion to Torah, not interrupting it.

I think Pirkei Avot 3 is a chapter calling for careful thought requiring integration with the many other truths of the Bible and Jewish tradition.

If we are not careful, we will become religious scoffers, which is also a kind of scoffer. A religious scoffer looks at beauty and says it does not matter unless it is directly related to some kind of religious activity. Goodness for its own sake is ignored and only religious work matters. Things God calls pure are called evil.

But God’s creation is one in which beauty, joy, and truth are harmonious, not at odds. If we understand some of the wisdom of Pirkei Avot’s third chapter with this in mind, we will be properly challenged to put our house in order. The teaching of God should be the glasses through which we view beauty and joy, but not a blindfold through which we ignore them.

FFOZ Blogs – http://ffoz.org/blogs
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Rabbi Russ Resnik – http://rebrez.wordpress.com
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ChidusheiYeshua.wordpress.com (Michael Murray)
HeavenIsNear.wordpress.com (Cliff Carlson)
TalkingSynagogue.blogspot.com (Dustin Koch)
LiterallyMessianic.wordpress.com (Wanda Shepherd)
ArlineLovell.wordpress.com (Arline Lovell)
Becky at Hollands Home Book Review
Justin Bond http://messiahconnection.wordpress.com/
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About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in ethics, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to J-BOM: Extremism in Pirkei Avot?

  1. The scriptures are full of this kind of “extremism”, so Pirkei Avot is WELL within the norms.

    Two that come immediately to mind:

    “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

    “You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

  2. Gene:



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