REVIEW: Uncommon Wisdom – R. Steinsaltz’s Avot

Marina Zilbergerts Tradition Online | July 25, 2021

Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz, Pirkei Avot [A Hebrew Commentary on Avot] (Merkaz Steinsaltz & Koren Publishers, 2020), 420 pages.

Tomorrow we mark the first yahrzeit of Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz zt”l (on the 17th of Av, which falls out on Monday, July 26). Steinsaltz was admired throughout the Jewish world on account of his great achievement in democratizing the experience of learning Talmud, bringing it to those who had neither knowledge of Aramaic nor teachers able to initiate them. In providing unprecedented access to Jewish study for anyone who wanted to come and learn, his life’s work represents a revolution whose importance cannot be overstated. 

His mission was to make Jewish knowledge accessible to the widest audience and thereby inspire authentic Jewish engagement through learning. In his commentaries on the Talmud, Tanakh, and Mishneh Torah, and Tanya, among other Jewish texts, he introduced a new form of hermeneutics. By drawing on his wide-ranging fields of knowledge and interest – from academic Jewish studies to fields as variegated as botany, aerospace engineering, archeology, psychology, art, and music – his commentaries connect Torah, broadly speaking, to all the possible facets of life. 

In a work released shortly before his death, a new Hebrew commentary on Pirkei Avot, Steinsaltz rearticulates many of the ideas that animated him throughout his life. His wide-ranging glosses on the nature of wisdom, intellectual achievement, human relationships, virtue, and government, among other topics, show how Avot explores the problems faced by the individual as a moral agent in a world where knowledge is readily available but wisdom is hard to come by. For Steinsaltz, Avot articulates the Sages’ skepticism about intellectual achievement as the path to ethical action, cutting against the grain of contemporary culture. This commentary on Avot is a fitting capstone to his overall oeuvre.

Like Steinsaltz’s other works, this volume is both rigorous and simple. The writing is concise and inviting, avoiding jargon in favor of accessibility. This transparency of style is a matter of principle; in The Sociology of Ignorance, a 1987 Hebrew book Steinsaltz co-wrote with his childhood friend, the historian Amos Funkenstein (1937-1995), the authors describe how knowledge has been monopolized by institutions from the church to the academy. The book presents an argument for the ideal of “open knowledge,” a value essential to Judaism, which Steinsaltz traces back to Ezra, Hillel, and the rabbinic democratization of Jewish learning in Yavneh.

Steinsaltz’s commentary on Avot is written in the same spirit of opening the gates of Jewish knowledge to contemporary readers. He takes the terse statements of the Mishna and provides context, often from other contemporaneous cultures. He also provides historical and thematic character profiles of the rabbinic sages, relating their Mishnaic statements to the circumstance of their lives and personalities. The commentary contains an overview of key Jewish interpreters across the generations, as well as translations and etymologies of Greek and Persian terms, manuscript variants, textual differences from Avot de-Rabbi Natan, and a full bibliography. 

The book is neither a traditional religious tome nor an academic edition of a Jewish text, yet it offers much to both the religious scholar and learner as well as to the academic, or any person eager to absorb Jewish knowledge “on one foot.” In so doing, it reveals an essential component to the genre he pioneered that comes into full relief in this last book, namely, the humanist valence that is a crucial part of the Jewish view of learning and understanding.

In the introduction Steinsaltz comments on Avot’s overall goal: “This book helps us to become acquainted with the Jewish nation from the inside, to understand its inner thought, the means by which it aspires to perfection” (xii). Like the Mishna and Talmud, geared towards engaging with the process rather than the outcome, Avot does not describe perfection itself but the processes by which one might aspire to an ideal that is in itself unattainable. 

Rav Steinsaltz zt”l

Contrasting with the Greek wisdom tradition, Steinsaltz explains that although the rabbinic sages are primarily concerned with philosophical questions, “they do not engage in abstract philosophical discourse.” Rather, they offer “short statements delivered by the sage to his students, which represent a grain of an idea” (xii). 

The form chosen for the articulation of Jewish wisdom, which Steinsaltz compares to Confucianism, rebels against the hubris of Greek-inspired enlightenment rationalism. “This is not a book for reading,” he continues, referring to direct, rational, means of knowledge acquisition. It is, rather “a bundle of medicines that a person does not swallow all at once, but takes one at a time and internalizes until it begins to enact its intended remedy” (xiii). Neither apparent nor guaranteed, Steinsaltz likens the wisdom offered by Avot to a type of medicine for the soul, whose remedial effects can only transform the person over time, if ever at all.

Indeed, running through the commentary is skepticism about the very value of intellectual achievement and the difficulty of translating it into meaningful action. On Shimon ben Gamliel’s dictum “All my days I grew up among sages and found nothing better for the body than silence. Not study, but action is primary” (1:16), Steinsaltz comments: 

While words of wisdom have a definite value and intellectual benefits, in terms of their outcome […] they are likely, in fact, to cause people harm […]. Action alone determines a person’s path in the final analysis; it, rather than the articulation of new principles and interpretations, however beautiful they may be, is the test for the individual and society (67).

This skepticism about intellectual achievement might seem like a performative contradiction. Steinsaltz was awarded the Israel Prize and many other honors and described as a “once in a millennium scholar” (a title his students say he disparaged). Steinsaltz was clearly a paragon of intellectual achievement. What then explains this apparent disenchantment about the intellectual edifices constructed by the human mind? Is this a restatement of the old Hasidic critique of the cult of intellectual achievement targeted at contemporary culture? 

Steinsaltz later clarifies that “intellectual achievement, even great wisdom, cannot save a person from a situation of a breakdown, whether the result of internal or external factors” (187). As attractive as brilliance may be, the silent, basic actions of individuals – tending, listening, being present – are the things Jewish wisdom says we can count on. 

Steinsaltz could not have chosen a better work to revise our reliance on contemporary intellectual culture for moral guidance than Pirkei Avot, a work deeply concerned with the meaning of piety. The idea of piety seems outdated, to be sure, to many people living today in a culture that has outsourced the need for ethical guidance to social movements. An interesting feature of Steinsaltz’s commentary is that it reads Tannaitic piety in a modern light without eliding its essentially rabbinic character, as recent commentators have done. His commentary is a masterful demonstration of how to avoid grafting modern principles of social justice onto a venerable tradition. 

Even when commenting on Avot’s more troubling dicta, such as “do not frequent conversation with women” (1:5), Steinsaltz does not feel compelled to either dismiss or apologize for the text in light of modern sentiment, but rather offers a novel interpretation which both keeps true to rabbinic ethics while holding an important lesson for modern life: 

When a person has an open home […] it is obvious that among those guests are also women. It is thus the place to warn one against becoming too friendly with all the women who come to his house because the conversation […] is likely to devolve into a conversation about intimate matters.
A casual conversation between a man and a woman – it is difficult for such a conversation to be entirely removed from a deeper system, conscious or unconscious, of erotic tension. (26).

The world in which Steinsaltz considers this dictum is not a sexually segregated one, but one in which men and women casually mingle at events, parties, people’s houses, and where the problem of “erotic tension,” which Steinsaltz bluntly names, is an inherent potential in all human interactions. Operating with a psychologically complex view of human desire rather than an idealized post-gender age ruled by reason, Steinsaltz describes a familiar scenario: A man becomes close to one of his female guests. Readers of Chaim Grade’s novel The Yeshiva or viewers of Shtisel know that even in a gender-segregated society no dramatic illicit act needs to take place for passions to run high. A causal conversation can become intimate, and, with modern devices, can easily turn, for instance, into a situation of sexual or emotional infidelity.

Pirkei Avot mistrusts the rationalizations and confidence of intellectually gifted people. In Hillel’s central and pious injunction, “Do not trust yourself until the day you die” (2:4), he warns us that even the most well-intentioned individuals can be blinded by the feel-good hubris of viewing themselves as aligned with the “correct” principles. The insight offered by Steinsaltz’s commentary here is perhaps not reassuring, but it is the truth, which is that no outward cultural, religious, or ethical transformation can serve as an antidote to the deceptions constructed by the yetzer – hence the issued warning. 

For Steinsaltz, the path of wisdom is an individualist pursuit that sometimes requires being at odds with the powers that be. In his commentary to Avot’s exhortation to “despise the rabbanut” Steinsaltz explains that the term “rabbanut

denotes every type of institutional power [srara]; whether we are talking about communal leadership or religious leadership. This statement is especially sharp because it does not only imply that a person should try to avoid involvement with institutional power but more specifically, that one should despise the very condition of institutionalization.
When a person becomes a part of an institutional system (whether large or small), it causes him to change his relationship to people. This is not an accidental outcome of exploitation or corruption but a problem inherent in institutional power itself (43).

Just as he was suspicious of intellectual and moral over-confidence, Steinsaltz was suspicious of power. Steinsaltz observes that the occasional anti-government sentiment found in Avot can be linked to political tensions during the Herodian period, but the insight remains no less relevant today (44). The fundamental problem with institutions is that they cause those embedded in them to lose sight of the needs and interests of ordinary individuals who become their subjects. 

This is an idea Steinsaltz has articulated in other contexts, for example, in order to rebuke Jewish communal and religious establishments. In the case of the latter, Steinsaltz has also described how conformity and routine hinder authentic religious connection. He knew this on a personal level; as an outsider facing opposition, Steinsaltz was obliged not only to create his own vision for Jewish knowledge and the texts which would realize it, but also all the frameworks which would house it, which included his Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, schools, yeshivot, and various other educational and outreach initiatives in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. 

While on research leave shortly before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I visited Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Jerusalem minyan during the last months of his life. The minyan was located, appropriately it seemed, in the Museum of Natural History in Jerusalem’s old German Colony neighborhood, in a little house in the museum’s yard surrounded by thick vegetation. Located right next to it was a whimsical enclosure which housed a tortoise. It is a small but dedicated community of minds which included Jews of all shapes and colors, across the religious spectrum and walks of life, who were there to partake in Steinsaltz’s unique vision of the Jewish religious experience. 

Rabbi Steinsaltz’s commentary takes the Jewish tradition seriously on its own terms, neither historicizing its dictums nor making them conform to today’s sentiments. It reminds us that wisdom and the prospect of growth is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow, requiring the re-examination of ourselves and our principles. The commentary on Pirkei Avot offers a grounding read for today’s perplexed, inviting intellectual and ethical humility in a world turned upside-down, calling for a return to simple basic action. 

Marina Zilbergerts is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Literature and Thought at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of The Yeshiva and the Rise of Modern Hebrew Literature (Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

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