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Commentary on Tanakh Discussion April 19, 2021: Pirkei Avot

Don Perlmutter

Pirkei Avot and Cancel Culture Collide
Pirkei Avot is rife with passages that are overtly sexist: “as long as a man engages in too much conversation with women, he causes evil to himself." Rabbi Edery began the discussion by posing a question: “Should we cancel texts that espouse sexist attitudes?” 

This advice from the sages was motivated by a desire to keep men’s minds undistracted from their pursuit of learning and prayer. The assumption was (and still is for the orthodox) that merely talking to a woman will cause sexual arousal and impure thoughts. Since modern thinking rejects this notion, should we simply strike them and prevent future generations from reading them? 

The consensus opinion was “No." If we are to accept or reject interpretations of Torah, we must discuss them on their merits. To eliminate these words of advice is to close the conversation about them before it can begin. Furthermore, by reading these words, we are permitted to appreciate how our attitudes toward discrimination and intolerance have evolved. 

More Principles from Pirkei Avot

Joshua ben Perahiah:
Appoint for yourself a Teacher – The goal is to continue to learn whether you are a student or a rabbinic leader. To accomplish this end, you must take the initiative to identify and recruit a teacher or mentor. Your choice, to facilitate your progress, should be someone whose method is compatible with your own. Consistency is important. Avoid changing teachers because you disagree. You may gain deeper understanding if you work through points of conflict. This advice is reflected in the medical treatises of Maimonides in which he cautioned against doctor “jumping."

Acquire for yourself a Friend - This seems to be an acknowledgement that we are social animals, who require an emotional connection with our peers. This friend, by definition, ought to be someone you can trust, who will listen to you non-judgmentally, and support you. We are encouraged, once again, to take the initiative and seek opportunities to engage with people. 

Judge all people with the benefit of the doubt – This teaching launched a discussion relating to social justice and the principle of Fundamental Attribution Error, which holds that in judging the behavior of others, people tend to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors. One can see how this thinking leads to racism as well as blaming victims because of who they are. The underlying assumption in giving the benefit of the doubt is that people fundamentally mean to do good. To assume otherwise is to be constantly suspicious and unhappy. An exception is the principle of the Gore of the Ox: There is an assumption of innocence with the 1st offense (gore of the ox). With subsequent offenses, blame is assigned.

Finally, Nittai the Arbelite advised us to “not despair because of the calamities." Rabbi Edery used the story of the Maccabees to illustrate: When Judea was occupied by the Greeks, many Jews collaborated with them, while others resisted. Although the two groups employed different strategies, neither despaired. In times of crisis, heroes may emerge, but they are not the standard of behavior and we should not pass judgement on those who survive without heroics.          

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784