Literary Analysis: Pirkei Avot

mn25aaZPmiRfxfF0k5LsnhwI haven’t blogged lately because I haven’t had much to say.

How does that happen? My mind stopped swirling, and I went inward, feeling the need for quiet. And so the blog stayed quiet, too.

But today I have something to say, so I’m writing.

This morning, I learned with my friend Batsheva. We’re studying Pirkei Avot, the Jewish sacred text, Ethics of the Fathers. It’s a two-fold goal to study Jewish sources and brush up on my Hebrew skills.

Pirkei Avot is full of little statements by great rabbis from many, many years ago, with extracted commentary and wisdom designed to make our lives today that much better. And today, I had a problem with one statement.

levtovThe passage began by saying that a person must keep his house open wide, to welcome in poor people as if they are family. Adjacent to that assertion is the statement that a man must not engage in conversation with a woman.

The interpretation, my friend explained, was deeper than the surface. It meant to say to be careful when conversing with strangers of the opposite sex, lest such conversation lead you to temptation and beyond.

But the words were simple. In Hebrew, v’al tarbeh seecha em ha’esha. It’s translated as do not converse excessively with a woman.

We diverged into a philosophical conversation about who interprets this to mean draw a fence for yourself so that you do not act inappropriately. Which led to a philosophical conversation about who does the interpretations and whom we should, or should not, follow.

Which led me down the deeper path of questioning whether interpretation is whatever we take it to be, or whoever is in power or a position of authority, and whole communities are shaped around the thoughts and idea of one fallible person.

Later in the text, a sage advises people to make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge everyone favorably.

10787fd6d593dbbad16add2384a56ca6Those statements, at least for me, need no interpretation. But the early passage does. And it doesn’t sit pretty with me.

I believe in studying sacred text as a regular part of my daily life. I believe in looking for inspiration around me and outside of me, infusing my life with meaning and higher purpose. I believe ancient text, and recent text, both, offer wisdom and meaning and inspiration, if we are inclined to look for it.

If we’re not, it doesn’t matter what you read. It will fall on deaf ears.

But this text did not admonish women to not have an excessive conversation with a man, nor did it explain that this admonition was really to protect people from falling into disrepute and throwing their life to the wolves.

Missing from this sacred and wise text, which is titled Ethics of the Fathers, is wisdom from the Mothers. From the women who populate our past, who play starring roles in our historical stories. Where is their wisdom? And would it be any different from what these sages have to offer?

Later, my friend and I talked about the idea of truth, and how subjective that is. We agreed that truth is personal, and it really isn’t for us to say what someone else should or shouldn’t do.

Too man people in this world, some in my very own backyard, believe they do have that right, to tell others how to live. We’re entering another national election season where many of the political issues revolve around controlling other people’s lives.

Susie D pictureSo here’s the bottom line: it’s not for me or you to say what anyone else does. We have laws, we have parameters, we have guidance. The rest is up to the individual.

If you believe, as I do, that religion or spirituality are first and foremost a relationship between a person and God, then it shouldn’t matter what any other opinion is. And if you believe, as I do, that religion is secondarily about community, then we can all agree that these admonitions are more about controlling the masses than about individual inspiration.

I believe in fences to a degree. Setting boundaries and not crossing them – as simple as knowing when to stop talking in an argument with your spouse because one of you will say something hurtful that you can’t erase.

But when the fence keeps people apart, separated into camps of we-are-better and you-are-lacking, then the fences must be taken down. Only then can people see truth peek out from the bushes, the tree branches, the bird frittering on the window ledge.

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