Sage advice from ancient sages, via a modern thinker

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by Michael Berenbaum

Irving “Yitz” Greenberg

Irving “Yitz” Greenberg

One could review Irving “Yitz” Greenberg’s decadelong effort “Sage Advice: Pirkei Avot” in one sentence: “Sage Advice” (Maggid Books) is Yitz Greenberg being Yitz Greenberg — the rest is commentary, go and study it. But I suspect my (and the book’s) editors would prefer more than one sentence.

 

Tradition mandates that on each of the six Shabbatot following Passover — between the Exodus and Sinai — each Jew must prepare for Shavuot by reading a chapter of Pirkei Avot, often translated as “The Ethics of Our Fathers,” a concise, intense and readily accessible distillation of rabbinic wisdom, praise of Torah learning and, so aptly termed here, “sage advice.” Traditional prayer books contain this text, and it is usually read in the waning minutes that separate the Mincha, the afternoon service, from the end of Shabbat. So familiar is the text to religious Jews that it is sometimes taken for granted — admired, repeated, revered and, all too quietly, ignored.

 

Greenberg makes new what seems all too familiar, and, at the same time, makes it accessible to those new to rabbinic texts.

First, a few words about the author: Greenberg, better known in the Jewish world as Yitz, is one of the most subtle and also most accessible thinkers of our time. In his series of public lectures and pamphlets and precious few books, he has bridged the gap between professional scholarship and public learning. He is also one of contemporary Judaism’s most creative institutional innovators, as he — and we — struggle to find a way to deal with the changed Jewish world in the aftermath of the Shoah and the rise of the State of Israel. He faces head-on the challenges of modernity and the myriad creative tensions between the values of Judaism and the ethics of the modern world. Greenberg is the favorite Orthodox rabbi for many in the non-Orthodox community, for he takes seriously the challenges and the integrity — religious and otherwise — of non-Orthodox Jews. For the Orthodox, he is a reminder — some dismissively call him a relic — of a time when Orthodoxy sought a synthesis between tradition and modernity at a time when many Orthodox Jews tread between two disparate worlds — their religious life uninformed by modernity and their modern life unchallenged by their religiosity. Together with his formidable wife, Blu, Greenberg has been at the forefront of the struggle within Orthodoxy for a greater role for women, for resolution of the agunah problem (obtaining a religious divorce for Orthodox women whose husbands refuse them) and for greater Torah learning for all Jews, including women.

A personal word, as well: I first heard Greenberg speak on the Holocaust in 1974, and as a result, much to my regret at the time, had to revise my dissertation to reflect his significant contribution to post-Holocaust theology. Greenberg’s work cost me months of extra effort on my dissertation, annoying at the time, but more than worth it in hindsight. Greenberg has made me a better thinker and he made my dissertation a better book.

It should also be noted that we are friends and colleagues. The Greenbergs briefed me before I went to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks, and I have worked closely with Yitz both at Zachor, a Holocaust remembrance foundation and a precursor of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership on whose faculty he continues to serve. (He is also president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.) We also worked closely on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, where he was director and I his deputy. And we served together 20 years later on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, when he was chairman and I a member of the council and its executive committee.

Greenberg was ordained by the Beth Joseph Rabbinical Seminary, a mussar yeshiva where Torah learning was undertaken with intense ethical discipline, and his choice of Pirkei Avot as a subject of study reflects his training and his well-honed ethical insights. In this book, he has come back to his roots with power and passion. Greenberg’s commentary is clear and crisp. A native of Brooklyn with a Harvard Ph.D., his writing is careful, nuanced but informal, and he captures not only the substance of the rabbis’ insights, but also their tone and even occasional playfulness.

The first segment of Pirkei Avot deals with the transmission of tradition from generation to generation, and Greenberg does not believe in a disembodied tradition. He believes teachings come forth from the lives of real Jews in the fullness of their humanity, and he delves into not only the rabbinic teaching, but also the men’s (and, yes, they were all men). He depicts them and their times, their struggles and oftentimes the personal, political and historical issues that defined their experiences and shaped their views. For those who first experienced rabbinic tradition as if it were one conversation among contemporaries sitting around the same table, Greenberg’s roadmap to the rabbis and their lives is instructive.

The pearl of this work, though, is Greenberg’s commentary on the applicability of what is being taught, to those times and to our own, not only to the rabbis’ lives in the first 500 years of the Common Era, but also to the contemporary world and the challenges their teachings offer to our way of life and our values. Here Greenberg is deft. A few words speak volumes. He is cajoling, offering mussar — admonition and rebuke — yet seeking to transform our aspirations and challenge our presumptions. One sage admonished: “Say little and do much,” and Greenberg heeds this advice, the little he says does so very much.

Greenberg also subtly weaves in his more sophisticated reading of three great eras in Jewish history: The biblical era, when God is the primary actor, the Divine Presence is manifest. The rabbinic era, in which God’s presence is less manifest and must be invoked by prayer, deed, study and action — in this era, God and Israel are partners. And, finally, our own era, in which human action is so central.

One example: Chapter 2, Mishna 13 concludes: “Don’t be wicked in your own sight.” Greenberg comments:

Maimonides interprets: Do not see yourself as totally wicked and incorrigible — for then you will give up and will not repent and give up your ways.

Always see yourself as a person of mixed tendencies. This will assure you that you are never beyond redemption. More importantly, this will give you the incentive that with some extra effort, you can turn yourself to the side of the good.

Pirkei Avot is a basic text of rabbinic Judaism, the distillation of its wisdom meant for ordinary folk. So “Sage Advice” offers a wonderful entry point for those who want to read a rabbinic text by one of the great teachers of our generation. For the more learned, it is also a way to remind oneself and each other of the Chasidic teaching: It is less important how much of the Talmud you have been through than how much of the Talmud — rabbinic learning and ethics — has been through you. How much you know must be reflected in how you act, in ways both large and small.

This article was originally published here.