Pirkei Avot (“Chapters of the Fathers”) is surely the most well-known of all rabbinic writings, the only Mishnaic tractate to be enshrined in virtually all traditional Jewish prayerbooks. Its opening lines — “Moses received Torah on Sinai and handed it on to the Elders” — are second only to “Shema Yisrael” as evocative symbols of Jewish affirmation.
Now, in American Jewish publishing there is a flood of translation-commentaries on Avot that compete for the various market niches — from yeshivish to Reform, from “academic” to “Kabbalistic.” And all of these find their readers.
But no new rendering of Avot can match the cultural impact of Prof. Avigdor Shinan’s recent Hebrew edition, Pirkei Avot: A New Israeli Commentary. Upon publication in 2009, it shot to the top of the Israeli bestseller list in the category of “non-fiction,” and has by now sold well over 300,000 copies. Sarah Palin should be so lucky!
What’s all the hubbub about? First, some prosaic details: The author, on the Talmud faculty at Hebrew University, is a well-respected scholar of early rabbinic literature, specializing in the biblically oriented field of Midrashic studies and a sub-field, the study of the Midrashic dimensions of the ancient Aramaic translations of the Bible.
So, you might wonder (as do I!): How does a practitioner of a dusty academic discipline come upon the formula for a bestseller?
Well, for one thing, he writes like an angel. Shinan’s prose — that allusive Hebrew prose style that taps into every historical layer of the language — is a pleasure to read. But still, what is it about Prof. Shinan’s effort that has so distinguished it in the Israeli market for religious texts?
Let’s start with the subtitle.
What is an “Israeli” commentary? Very simply, it is a commentary on Avot that reaches beyond the traditional niches of the Israeli market in sifrei kodesh (“religious” books) to include the market called in America “the general, literate reader.”
This is hardly the first Israeli publication of a rabbinic text aimed at such a public (think of Tishby’s presentation of the Zohar or Albeck’s edition of the Mishna). But it is perhaps one of the first to take seriously the idea that Israeli culture has produced a broad and varied Jewish literary public whose collective experience can provide access to a classic Jewish text other than the Bible. In other words, you don’t have to be “religious” in the Israeli sense to relate to this book as part of your spiritual landscape; but neither do you have to be “secular” to see it as a ringing affirmation of “Israeliness.” Come as you are!
Prof. Shinan addresses his complex audience by presenting a commentary in basically three parts. The first presents the text of the Mishna with a simple explanation that often focuses on the many connections and disconnections between Mishnaic Hebrew (leshon hachamim) and contemporary Israeli Hebrew (Ivrit meduberet). So for a Hebrew speaker, Pirkei Avot becomes, among other things, a process of discovery in one’s own language, much like reading Shakespeare for an English reader.
Next comes the layer of historical contextualization. Under Shinan’s guidance, the wise sayings of the sages do not float in some eternal ether beyond history. Rather, they are linked to real events in the political and cultural experience of the Jews of antiquity. Torah may be “from Heaven” but it is given to real people in real time!
But the real hiddush is in the third section of comment on each Mishna. Here Prof. Shinan deftly connects the literal and historical meanings he has highlighted in the text to the collective memory of Israeli Jewry and the key themes of Israeli culture.
I have room for only a brief example. Students of Pirkei Avot will recall the teaching of Shimon the Tzaddik, a survivor of the Great Assembly, who taught (1:2):
On three principles does the world stand:
On the Torah,
and on the Temple sacrifice (ha-avodah),
and on compassionate acts.
Focusing on the middle term, ha-avodah, Prof. Shinan dutifully reports the view of virtually all commentators that the primary reference of avodah in the Second Temple era was of course the sacrificial service of the priests in the Jerusalem Temple. He also informs us, as most already know, that the rabbis early on regarded prayer as a supplementary avodah.
There are debates whether prayer is a lesser service than sacrifice, equal to it, or even superior. But no one doubts that, one way or another, it is avodah. And nowadays (“nowadays” being the last 2,000 years) it is the only avodah in town.
But, as those familiar with the history of Zionism and Israeli politics well know, there is another sense of avodah that conceptualizes the very essence of what we might call “Zionist-Israeli civil religion.” This, of course, is the idea of labor (avodah) in the fields and factories of eretz Yisrael as a regenerative and redemptive stage in the restoration of the Jews as a “nation like the other nations.”
Prof. Shinan uses the teaching of Shimon the Tzaddik as a pretext to re-engage the ideal of avodah in both its traditional Judaic and modern Zionist conceptions. His comments turn out to offer a stunning challenge to contemporary Israeli civic culture, in which the “three principles upon which the nation stands” are more often pressed into service of personal comfort and enrichment rather than the communal well-being.
The wild popularity of the book among all segments of the Israeli reading public suggests a thirst for just this sort of effort to use a Torah text to transcend (rather than exacerbate) Israeli Jewry’s religious, class, and social divisions in the service of a larger program of national healing.
If you regard the intra-Jewish culture war in Israel as no less a danger to the state than that posed by its many external enemies, Prof. Shinan’s wonderful Pirkei Avot is a cause for celebration. And its broad popularity is a promising sign of the maturing of Israeli Judaism. Now, what about our own?