Sage Advice: Pirkei Avot, with Trans­la­tion and Commentary

Irv­ing (Yitz) Greenberg
  • Review
By – April 20, 2016

Pirkei Avot, usu­al­ly trans­lat­ed as Chap­ters of the Fathers” or Ethics of the Fathers,” is the beloved Mish­na­ic col­lec­tion of rab­binic apho­risms that has now received a new trans­la­tion and his­tor­i­cal-con­tex­tu­al com­men­tary by renowned edu­ca­tor and the­olo­gian Rab­bi Dr. Irv­ing (Yitz) Green­berg. While acknowl­edg­ing that there have been hun­dreds of pri­or trans­la­tions and com­men­taries, Rab­bi Dr. Green­berg seeks to make Avot avail­able to the broad­er pub­lic as well as those who have grown up with a rab­binic Jew­ish her­itage” and demon­strate that the rab­binic view of life, the bib­li­cal tra­di­tion, and his­to­ry can offer spir­i­tu­al guid­ance to a world seek­ing its way amid rapid cul­tur­al change and wide­spread moral confusion.”

Bring­ing a life­time of learn­ing to the task, Rab­bi Dr. Green­berg cites rab­binic and aca­d­e­m­ic sources through­out the book to pro­vide the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the sages’ quotes. He sit­u­ates their say­ings with­in the con­text of their lives as trans­mit­ters and pro­tec­tors of the Jew­ish tra­di­tion and its val­ues under Roman rule (the author often cred­its assis­tance in this regard to Rab­bi Binyamin Lau’s mul­ti-vol­ume work The Sages, also pub­lished by Maggid/​Koren), while empha­siz­ing the teach­ings’ con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance. His lan­guage is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly soar­ing and schol­ar­ly, such as when he gloss­es the mish­na that con­tains Rab­ban Gam­liel the son of Rab­bi Yehu­da the Prince’s state­ments that it is good to com­bine Torah study with world­ly occu­pa­tion” and those who work for the com­mu­ni­ty should do so for the sake of heav­en” by stat­ing com­mu­nal lead­er­ship and ser­vice done for noble motives rather than for self­ish inter­est is of the high­est order and dig­ni­ty in God’s eyes. Note that these state­ments were made by a descen­dant of a fam­i­ly that had led the com­mu­ni­ty for gen­er­a­tions and sup­port­ed itself along the way.”

While it would have been impos­si­ble for the work, espe­cial­ly giv­en its stat­ed aim of mass appeal, to cite even a major por­tion of the immense schol­ar­ship on Avot, the book often leaves one want­i­ng more — some of the indi­vid­ual mish­nay­ot receive pages of com­men­tary while oth­ers get just a hand­ful of lines. The analy­sis of 2:3 for exam­ple, which con­tains Rab­ban Gamliel’s warn­ing to be care­ful of the gov­ern­ing people…they appear to be lov­ing friends when they are ben­e­fit­ing from a per­son, but do not stand by a per­son when he is strug­gling,” a pas­sage ripe with both his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance, receives only this com­ment: Rab­ban Gam­liel saw the exploita­tive and errat­ic behav­ior of the Roman author­i­ties and their col­lab­o­ra­tors up close.” One wish­es a bib­li­og­ra­phy /​guidance for fur­ther read­ing, would have been pro­vid­ed, a desire which was trig­gered mul­ti­ple times read­ing the text (for exam­ple, p. 260 refers to the rab­binic inter­pre­ta­tion of Sodomite soci­ety” but no ref­er­ence is giv­en as to where one can find this interpretation.)

These minor quib­bles aside, the work suc­ceeds in its ped­a­gog­i­cal goals, and one looks for­ward to future vol­umes in the author’s project to devel­op a Jew­ish nar­ra­tive the­ol­o­gy for our time.” 

Relat­ed Content:

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions