Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life
By William Berkson
Jewish Publication Society, 2010, 228 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 3, 2010
Dr. Berkson offers a new translation of one of Judaism's most beloved and significant classics, the second century ethical guide Pirke Avot, which is usually rendered Ethics of the Fathers, referring to the wisdom of the ancient Jewish sages, but which literally means Chapters from the Fathers or Chapters of Significant Teachings. Besides the accessible translation, Berkson makes three contributions: he focuses on the authors' intent; places the author's teaching in an historical perspective; and compares the ancient thought with contemporary psychology, religious attitudes, and ethical notions. The following are some examples.
The first statement is that "Moses received Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua…." The statement continues with further transmissions to the elders, prophets, and men of the Great Assembly. Berkson discusses the meaning of the transmission of Torah. Torah could be wisdom or the traditional "Oral Torah," which many Orthodox Jews say was revealed at Sinai, while others claim that it is post-biblical rabbinic enactments. He tells about the views of the European Enlightenment, which began at the end of the eighteenth century. He speaks about how biblical scientists viewed the Bible as historical documents. Then, turning to modern times, he talks about the different views of the various Jewish denominations.
In the twelfth statement of the first of the five chapters, Hillel, who lived two thousand years ago, said "Be among the disciples of Aaron: a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace." Berkson writes that Hillel lived during a period of Roman oppression and advised people not to fight back. Three generations later, his followers continued to advocate peace, but the then Jewish leaders insisted on war against Rome, resulting in the destruction of Israel and the dispersion of Jews for two thousand years. Jesus, he points out, took a stand similar to Hillel's: "Resist not evil…. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left." W. H. Hudson, a nineteenth century naturalist and novelist, argued the contrary, people have a moral obligation to strike back. Judaism, Berkson states, took neither of these extremes. The later sages advocated a middle course: we should pursue peace, but self defense is proper.
Hillel is reported saying in the fourteenth statement: "If I am not for myself, who is for me?" Besides explaining the original intent, giving an historical analysis, and other information, Berkson quotes the philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204). Maimonides interpreted the saying psychologically. Individuals learn how to act when they are young, and develop habits of doing right or wrong, and these habits are difficult to change as people mature. Therefore, Maimonides interprets Hillel to say: do good now, do not wait until it is too late, when you are older.
Thus, in short, this new translation and commentary gives readers a host of interesting information about the development of Jewish history and ideas.