Rabbi Chaninah: Pray for the Government!

Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive. – Pirkei Avot 3:2

Since readers in the United States had their income tax deadline this week, I thought this passage from the Mishnah might be appropriate.

There are several passages in Pirkei Avot that warn against getting too comfortable with the government (e.g. Avot 1:10.) Lest we decide that Jewish tradition leans towards a particular ideology or form of government, Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim comes along to warn us that we may not like the government, but it still has its purpose. In his eyes, the purpose of government is to keep people from “swallow[ing] each other alive.” How’s that for vivid imagery?

To understand why he would say this, we have to look at Rabbi Chanina and the times in which he lived. He is identified here and elsewhere in the Mishnah as Segan HaKohanim, the deputy of the high priests. In fact, he was an essential member of the staff during the final days of the Temple. The office of Kohen Gadol, High Priest, had become a political appointment, and many of those who filled it were qualified because they were descendants of Aaron, but less than completely knowledgeable about their responsibilities. As Segan, Chanina served under several High Priests (hence the sobriquet “Deputy of the High Priests” plural.) He was the expert who saw to it that things were done properly, and should the High Priest become unfit, he had to be prepared to step in and serve in his stead:

R. Chanina Segan haKohanim said, “Why is a ‘Segan’ [Deputy] appointed? In case the high-priest became unfit for service, the ‘Segan’ [Deputy] should enter at once to do the service.” – Sotah 42a

Rabbi Chaninah was the man responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly in the great Temple. He filled that role in an era of legendary upheaval. He served several different High Priests. He saw the political chaos leading up to the Great Revolt against Rome beginning in 66 CE, when different factions among the Jews fought each other as bitterly as later they would all fight against Rome. He watched the brutality of Rome come crashing down upon all the Jews. He was a witness to the horrors of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the events following.

When Rabbi Chaninah speaks of men “swallowing each other alive,” he is speaking colorfully, but it is hardly an exaggeration. He could remember a time when the government was disliked by most residents of Judea, but life was livable. By the time he died (according to some sources, martyred by Rome) life in Judea had gone through utter chaos and had been returned to order by a brutal army.

If we were to update Chaninah’s words today, he might say: “Be careful what you wish for: there are worse things than a government you don’t like.”

Hillel: Do Not Separate Yourself!

alone-279080_640

Hillel used to say: Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.  –Pirkei Avot 2:5

Here’s one of my favorite sayings by Hillel, who said a lot of famous things.

Whenever I find myself drawing away from Jewish community, I think of this passage. I usually have what I think are excellent reasons: someone was unkind, I was feeling bored, there’s some sort of squabble going on and I hate squabbling, etc. I have been a member of the same Jewish community for most of 20 years, and from time to time these things come up.

But whenever I notice that I have pulled away with these excellent reasons, I am reminded of this passage: “Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” Now I will grant that this is a multi-part verse, but notice the word “and.” These two phrases were meant to go together.  Hillel is saying to me, “Oh? You have separated yourself for excellent reasons? And who has decided those reasons are excellent, pray tell?”

At that point I have to admit that the only person I’ve consulted is myself. I’ve decided to separate from the community because I’m hurt, or mad, or bored, or whatever. Hillel reminds us that when we are feeling all “I vant to be alone”-ish, we are not necessarily employing our best selves or our best judgment. That moment, when I most want to pull away and sulk or feel superior, is exactly the moment when I should be talking to someone.

When I talk, it should be either to the person with whom I have the problem, or with someone who can help me put it into proper perspective so that I can do something about it. Simply “venting” to a friend or an outsider can do terrible damage, because it spreads poison without actually resolving anything.

Talking to the person with whom I have the problem, or to someone who can help me resolve matters is a lot harder than fussing to my friends. A good advisor will listen to me, but they also won’t let me get away with judgmental talk or cryptic statements. Talking with them ultimately means re-engaging with the community.

And if it turns out my reasons really are excellent, a good advisor will affirm that. There are times when a situation is so destructive that the only thing to do is leave. A good advisor will help me discern if that’s the case, and help me figure out what I need to do to leave with integrity. That’s very different from hiding out at home in a bad mood.

Hillel is often contrasted with his colleague Shammai. Of the two, Hillel has the reputation for being patient and kind. I suspect that while he may indeed have been patient and kind, he was also a shrewd old bird who would not let his students get away with foolishness. Certainly he doesn’t let me get away with much, every time I read him!

Avot: Meet Shammai

Tomb of Shammai

Shammai used to say: Make your Torah permanent, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance. (Avot 1:13)

It’s traditional to study Pirkei Avot during the time between Passover and Shavuot, and I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the less-familiar sayings in it. The entire text of this section of the Mishnah is available online in both Hebrew and in several different translations.

Shammai was a first century rabbi, one of several pairs of teachers mentioned in rabbinic literature. His opponent and pair was Hillel, one of the most famous of the early rabbis. Shammai was an irascible fellow, if we believe some of the stories told about him. He didn’t suffer fools. However, judging from this aphorism, he aspired to be more like calm, kind Hillel.

“Make your Torah fixed” – has been translated many different ways. Often it’s translated “study Torah at a fixed time very day.” However, I don’t see anything about time in the text. I think he’s telling his students (us) to fix Torah in our minds. Don’t “sort of learn” it: learn it, memorize it, engrave it on our minds.

“Say little and do much” – What counts for more, words or deeds? It is easier to talk about what we are going to do than to actually make the time and effort to do something. What is the good of talking about politics if we don’t vote? What good does it do to talk about writing a thank you note, if we never actually write it?

“Receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” – In Shabbat 31a, there are several stories about people approaching Shammai, wanting to convert to Judaism. Shammai chases them away because they ask rude or stupid questions. Hillel is more patient. It is amusing, therefore, to read here that Shammai says to “receive every person with a pleasant countenance” – really? What about the fellow at whom he threw the builder’s tool?

I admit that there are some lessons I teach that I do not yet practice perfectly, including this one. I worry sometimes about hypocrisy. The only way I know to deal with that is to be honest about my own imperfections.

What do you make of Shammai’s words? And what do you think about the fact that he taught a lesson he had not yet mastered?

Running for the Mitzvah

Kalicard

I have a new decoration on my desk: it’s a home made thank you card done in colored pencils.

I was totally, utterly delighted by the card. Part of it has to do with the fact that it really is a charming little card: it’s a pop up card made with both artistry and humor. But the real delight in it is the gratitude. Every time I see the card, I feel happy and appreciated.

I generally like to translate the word mitzvah as “sacred duty.” I find that is a more palatable word for many people than “commandment.” But both of those words are heavy on the obligation: they say, “I do this because I am supposed to do it.” And yes, there are some mitzvot I do solely out of a sense of duty. I pay my taxes. I pick up after the dog. That sort of thing.

This little card reminds me, though, that many “duties” can be framed differently. Some people think of thank you notes as a chore. This person obviously didn’t – she was shining back her joy to me, and now I have the pleasure of feeling her gratitude. I am challenged: what if I approached the writing of thank you notes with such enthusiasm?

The sages tell us to run to do even minor mitzvot, for each good deed will lead to another. “Run” could simply be read “do it quickly” but perhaps there is another reading: do it with enthusiasm. This enthusiastic little card did more than say “thank you.” It reminded me that on my to-do list are many opportunities for mitzvot, many opportunities to “increase the joy.” Happy Adar!

Ben Azzai used to say: Run to perform a minor mitzvah and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a sin is a sin. – Pirkei Avot 4:2

The Perfect Word

.ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש

The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.

I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!

Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”

Perfect, no?

Reframing Privilege

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 

Advice from Our Uncles

In this part of Titus' triumphal procession (f...
Decoration from the Arch of Titus in Rome, with spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shemayah and Avtalion received the Torah from them. Shemayah said: Love work; hate domination; and do not get too chummy with the government. – Pirkei Avot 1.10

This is a quotation from Pirkei Avot (peer-KAY ah-VOTE), The Verses of the Fathers, a collection of sayings by early rabbinic teachers. Shemayah and Avtalion lived in the first century BCE (Before the Common Era). My friend and colleague Rabbi Amitai Adler teaches that while most translations go heavy on the formal language, these are homespun sayings meant as advice, much of it gained in the school of life. Hence, in my translation, words like “chummy,” and my private name for this document: “Advice from Our Uncles.”

Every now and then I return to Pirkei Avot for inspiration. I love its down-to-earth point of view and its timelessness. For instance, what a commentary on the arguments swirling around 21st century America!

Love work – Contribute to society, for the sake of your own dignity and for the good of society. Don’t live forever on the work of others, whether you are the heir of plutocrats or the recipient of public assistance. Also, love those who work: don’t exploit people who work with their hands. (By the way, under the present laws of the U.S., I am not convinced that anyone is needlessly feeding on the public dole: it is extremely difficult to qualify. I include this here on the chance that a reader personally knows someone who is scamming benefits. I do not know such a person, but I know people who go hungry because they can’t get benefits and haven’t been able to get a job in years.)

Hate domination – Shemaya and Avtalion knew domination: they lived under the domination of the Roman Empire. But it is interesting that they did not limit their hatred to any specific agent of domination. My interpretation? This is both permission to hate something (domination) but a subtle warning that not all domination is from the government. They knew the domination of ideology, also – Jewish society was beginning to splinter into various conflicting ideologies, that ultimately would give rise to sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Sinat chinam would destroy everything: the Temple, the society, local institutions, families, life as they knew it. Demagoguery is as destructive as any tornado.

Don’t get too chummy with the government – I can hear my libertarian friends cheering this one, but notice that it doesn’t say “get rid of the government” (in fact,  Pirkei Avot 3.2  warns us to pray for the government, because without it, people would eat one another alive!) This is about putting too much faith in “connections” – thinking that because we “know someone” the things that are wrong in the society can’t touch us. The ancient Sadducees thought that because they were noisy about being “friends of Rome” that the supporters of the Temple party would be safe from Rome.  Josephus’ account of the destruction of the Second Temple reminds us just how wrong they were.

Rabbi Meir Tamari wrote that over the centuries, apologists for various economic theories have tried to sell the idea that Torah teaches socialism, or communism, or capitalism, when it fact what it teaches is kindness and moderation in all things.

Love work, hate domination, and don’t get too chummy with the government: words to live by, I think. Work hard, and respect those who work. Love those who want to work, and don’t prevent them from getting decent work, or from getting paid for it. Hate domination in all its forms, and question anyone who wants to distract us and dominate us by pointing to scapegoats. Don’t get too chummy with the government: be skeptical, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.

What do you think?