How does one study a text? What I do is look for books about books!
Ilana-Davita wrote a great introduction to Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers. Larry Lennhoff provided a link to online study with Rabbi Simchah Roth. And to my surprise today, Little Frumhouse posted about the first mishnah of Pirkei Avot.
Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union, has a review this month on two books on Pirkei Avot:
Pirkei Avos: Teachings for Our Times by Rabbi Berel Wein
I was in our local “sefarim” (books) store this afternoon, and I saw a three-volume commentary by Irving Bunim called Ethics from Sinai: A Wide-Ranging Commentary on Pirkei Avos. The store also has an Art Scroll Children’s Pirkei Avos, which is rather tempting, so I could perhaps interest one of my children? It would be much more fun to learn with one of them.
Of all these various books, the one that appeals to me most seems to be Relevance. After all, am I not seeking to find relevance in the Mishnah of 2000 years ago to my present life?
In his review in Jewish Action magazine, Sholom Gold tells us that Rabbi Dan Roth discovered there are 1,128 books already written on Pirkei Avot! This is one well-discussed text. But Sholom Gold is glad that despite the many books already written, Rabbi Roth has written this one:
True to the work’s title, Rabbi Roth consistently tries to make Pirkei Avot relevant to the contemporary reader. In doing so, the author tells us that he was inspired by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who once wrote: “I intend to show that this full and authentic Judaism does not belong to an antiquated past but to the living pulsating present; nay, that the whole future with all its intellectual and social problems whose solution mankind expects of it, belongs to Judaism, the full and unabridged Judaism.”
The review then brings samples of how Rabbi Roth relates individual phrases or lines to modern life. For example, “Rabbi Akiva said…’Masoret is a protective fence around the Torah’. Rabbi Roth learns from this that the ideal way to preserve the Torah is by maintaining the oral quality of the law. He then relates this to our own day and warns of over-dependence on DVDs and computers for Torah knowledge: “But let us never allow this surge of information to prevent us from internalizing the Torah.”
He then expands on this to include photography:
Even when visiting tragic places such as Auschwitz and other death camps, one will find people busy taking photos instead of using the heartrending moment for deep thought and reflection.
As one who takes many photos, this line gave me pause. Sometimes I feel I am better able to see nature when I take photos. But often when I am with my children, I just want to enjoy them. I don’t want to spend all my time snapping away. As an artist, I could take this even one step further — perhaps one can allow oneself down periods to reflect, and then the art will be ever so stronger when one returns to the canvas or paper. I doubt Rabbi Akiva meant that I should feel OK about reflecting and then returning to artwork, but somehow that’s where I traveled in this intellectual journey…
Stay tuned for more on Pirkei Avot on this blog when I return from vacation.
See my previous post on Pirkei Avot, in which I tackled women’s issues