Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pirke Avot 1:2 & 1:18: Three Pillars

Simeon the Righteous (Pirke Avot 1:2) said that the world was based on three things:

 על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.

The first is תורה (Torah). The Tosfos Yom Tov said that when Simeon the Righteous said Torah, he meant the active pursuit thereof. Some would confine Torah to the first five books of Moses. Others would open it up a bit more to both Written and Oral Law. I would be as inclusive as to say that Torah includes the entirety of Jewish texts, from the Tanach to modern-day responsa, and everything in between. The reason for this inclusiveness of texts is because Judaism embodies a nationality in addition to a religion. And like a people, Judaism has evolved over time. We have kept a general sense of Jewish values while being able to adapt over time. This is why the entire breadth of Jewish texts matters in terms of Jewish study.

The second is עבודה (service). This initially referred to the sacrificial services (Rambam, Rashi). However, since we don’t have a Temple anymore, service now refers to prayer.

The third is גמילות החסדים (acts of loving-kindness), which would be another way of saying imitatio Dei. I find this third pillar to be important for two reasons. The first is that the study of Torah becomes translated into action. The second is that it emphasizes that we are more than consumers and producers. We are being with a purpose to develop interpersonal relations and transcend the self by helping others.

We have a bit of a quandary because Shimon ben Gamliel opined in Pirke Avot 1:18 that the three principles upon which the world is sustained are truth, justice, and peace. According to Rambam, truth referred to intellectual truth, justice was a righteous government that properly and fairly ruled, and peace was a perfection of ethical conduct. Bertinoro actually thought that peace referred to the modern-day notion of world peace.

But that minor textual quarrel set aside, we have to ask ourselves which Sage is correct: Simeon the Righteous or Shimon ben Gamliel? They both sound like good answers, which means that at least one of them has to be correct. But I will contend that both are correct, but on different levels. Simeon the Righteous was correct in the sense that his grouping of three was meant for the actions that the individual had to pursue in order to lead a productive life. Shimon ben Gamilel is correct in the sense that these are the virtues that a government has to pursue in order to maintain stability, order, and an ethically sound nation-state. What I hope is that the Jewish people pursue both so we can hasten the coming of the Messiah……huzzah!

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