Jew­ish Text

The Illus­trat­ed Pirkei Avot

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

Through its pithy apothegms and meta­phys­i­cal wan­der­ings, the com­pendi­um of say­ings that con­sti­tute Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) has chal­lenged and enlight­ened read­ers for mil­len­nia. As a con­stituent piece of the Tal­mud, the chap­ter of Avot remains a go-to source for wis­dom and ped­a­gog­ic excel­lence, a sta­ple for eth­i­cal dis­cus­sion from liv­ing rooms to col­lege lec­ture halls.The amount of com­men­tary that has been expend­ed on these say­ings from the ancient Sages is con­sid­er­able. Many of the bright­est minds in Jew­ish his­to­ry have dis­sem­i­nat­ed the man­i­fold mean­ings of the words of the sages, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing these ven­er­a­ble pre­cepts for con­tem­po­rary audi­ences as well as for future generations.

While there are many com­men­taries to choose from, one of the most inter­est­ing and engag­ing is the recent­ly released Illus­trat­ed Pirkei Avot by Jes­si­ca Tamar Deutsch. Nav­i­gat­ing between the seri­ous and whim­si­cal with equal mea­sure, Deutsch has trans­mut­ed every word of Pirkei Avot from the stuff of parch­ment and crin­kled pages to a hand­some, sin­gu­lar col­lec­tion of sequen­tial art and imag­i­na­tion. (For good mea­sure, the entire trac­tate is repro­duced at the back of the book, just in case read­ers want to refer to the orig­i­nal while reading.)

In this way, Deutsch’s work is a new par­a­digm. It would be too much to say that this work breaks all the rules of nor­ma­tive Tal­mu­dic com­men­tary; that was prob­a­bly nev­er her inten­tion. To the con­trary, the acces­si­bil­i­ty stems from the book’s appeal to all ages in a wel­com­ing way. One could be a schol­ar or a neo­phyte when it comes to learn­ing Tal­mud and still learn some­thing from this work. At times Deutsch inserts a thought that is sep­a­rate from the art (i.e. the sto­ry of Hil­lel and the skull) that adds an ele­ment of reader/​author inter­ac­tion where it might not exist in oth­er commentaries.

Does the entire enter­prise of the Illus­trat­ed Pirkei Avot suc­ceed to its fullest poten­tial? It comes close for sure. Eval­u­at­ing this book leads to bifur­cat­ed thoughts. On the one hand, is this a pure­ly edu­ca­tion­al tool meant to elu­ci­date and clar­i­fy clas­si­cal rab­binic thought? Or, per­haps, is this com­ic a cos­mic decon­struc­tion of the count­less oth­er com­men­taries that have come before, being more acces­si­ble but less in-depth? The answer is prob­a­bly some­where in the mid­dle. My great­est hope,” Deutsch writes in her intro­duc­tion is that, in read­ing this, the teach­ings feel rel­e­vant to your life.” That’s a daunt­ing task, but an intrigu­ing one as well. Exploit­ing the nexus of comics and car­toon­ing to delve into the time­less lessons of Pirkei Avot is this book’s strongest asset.

Over­all, Deutsch’s con­tri­bu­tion to the canon of com­men­tary through her Illus­trat­ed Pirkei Avot is the first step on what should be a long career of com­bin­ing the best of comix and Jew­ish thought. This is a wor­thy debut, per­fect for read­ers young and old alike.

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