Introducing Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem

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Introducing Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem

With the publication of Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem, the RA adds a new volume to the Lev Shalem series that will significantly impact our contemporary understanding of this classic ancient text. The Lev Shalem series is aptly named: each volume approaches the text with a "full heart," completely committed to understanding the text in its ancient setting while transmitting a living "Torah of the heart" to each generation. In this unique volume, the text is literally surrounded by the voices of two superb commentators - Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and Rabbi Gordon Tucker, each deeply learned; each with a unique perspective reflecting the breadth and depth of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. The book’s Senior Editor, Rabbi Martin Cohen, not only guided the project at every turn, but he also contributed the English translation of the oldest extant text of Pirke Avot, dating to the 10th or 11th centuries, along with a preface and a commentary on the 6th chapter of the text.

We Are a Literary People

According to Rabbi Tucker, Avot is a revolutionary text, "a significant and far-reaching change in the very definition of religious truth." He reaches back to the late 19th century and the work of Asher Ginsberg (better known by his pen name Ahad Ha-am) when the Jewish world in Eastern Europe was facing a critical transition that would involve massive emigration in the face of anti-Semitic violence. The distinction Ginsburg drew was between am sifruti (a literary people) and am ha-sefer (a people of the book) signifies the difference between "a society that engages, learns from, and reacts to the world in which it lives, and bequeaths its discovered wisdom to subsequent generations," and "a society that is tethered tightly to a scripture, forever inhibited about doing anything that is not authorized by that canon." This critical distinction between engaging in the world - am sifruti  - and being inhibited from engaging - am ha-sefer - first arose in the 2nd century, a time of immense transition in the Jewish world, and again took on critical importance during the 19th. The process of interpreting text that arose during this formative period for Rabbinic Judaism is linked directly to the commentaries of this volume by the chain of tradition. While the challenges of the 21st century differ significantly from those of the 2nd or 19th centuries, we remain a "literary people," "actively involved in developing and refining the essence of its faith and culture, while not ignoring its past." Pirkei Avot is both about this process and of this process.

The Core of Our Spiritual Legacy

For Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum, the treasure that Avot describes as being passed from one generation to another, consists always of "a body and its clothing": the body is the written Torah while the "clothing" is "the people’s conversation that emerges from their encounter with the text" and it is the passing of body and clothing that characterizes each particular age: "In each generation there was somebody who would remove the sacral garments from the generation passing away, and someone who would pass them on to the next generation." She sees the commentary as neither "a work of academic scholarship, nor does it claim to be historical or philological in nature." Rather, she views Avot as the core of the spiritual legacy of our sages and her commentary often cites the Zohar and other mystical texts. She notes that to survive as a people after the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis had to “lay a solid foundation of Jewish norms and values for their generations" and she quotes freely from those who over the past century have continued to lay that foundation, writing about Israel, Jerusalem and the Jewish people while living in the land: "Both the body of the Torah and its garments have come back whole to Eretz Yisrael in our day, as Jews from every corner of the world gather together to build Jewish life and a Jewish state by carrying back to the land countless traditions, couched in different languages, dialects, and melodies—all of them seeds, which have been faithfully passed along during the long period of Jewish exile from the land."

In Memory of Rabbi Irwin Groner, ז"ל

Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem, dedicated in memory of Rabbi Irwin Groner, ז"ל, through the generosity of The Morris and Beverly Baker Foundation, represents both the values of the Foundation and the exemplary leadership of Rabbi Groner. The Foundation fulfills the vision of Morris Baker, ז"ל, who, in Rabbi Groner’s words, "was dedicated to preserving the continuity of the Jewish tradition" and who "believed that the ideals and teachings of that tradition have not only shaped the spiritual life of the Jewish people, but have also brought incalculable blessings to humanity." Beverly Baker has maintained Morris’s vision, and has tirelessly led the Foundation in its support of Jewish education and culture, the State of Israel, and many initiatives focused on health-related issues. Rabbi Irwin Groner came to Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit in 1959 as assistant to Rabbi Morris Adler, ז"ל. He was named senior rabbi in 1967 and in 1978 became Rabbi of the Congregation for life. A gifted orator, Rabbi Groner served the congregation with great distinction for over 40 years and was granted the honorary title of Rabbi Emeritus in 2003. He served the RA as Chair of the Humash Committee that produced Etz Hayim, as RA President and in numerous other leadership positions in the rabbinic world.  Rabbi Phil Scheim

The Commentators and the Editor

Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum is the founder of ZION: An Eretz Israeli Congregation in Jerusalem and Vice President of the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly. She is a Founder and Educational Director of the Ordination Program for Israeli Rabbis and co-founder of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, a joint project of the HaMidrasha Educational Center for Israeli Judaism and the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker has been at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY since 1994 and was named Senior Rabbi in 2003. From 1984 to 1992, he was Dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS and is currently Adjunct Assistant Professor of Jewish Philosophy. He is the author of numerous articles and most recently published Heavenly Torah, a translation with commentary on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's major three-volume Hebrew work on rabbinic theology.

Rabbi Martin S. Cohen, Senior Editor, rabbi of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, whose publications include Sefer Ha’ikarim Livnei Zemanenu; Our Haven and Our Strength, an edition of the book of Psalms; Siddur Tzur Yisrael, Zot Nechemati, a prayer book for the house of mourning; and The Boy on the Door on the Ox, an exploration of the relationship between Torah study and service in the congregational rabbinate.

Suggestions for Shaping Courses on Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem

For a single class or a series of perhaps 3 or 4 classes:

  • Students can be asked in advance to suggest texts with which they are particularly well acquainted or which they particularly like. Depending upon the knowledge and comfort level of the students, they can be asked to write a few words in advance about these texts – what inspires them, what puzzles them, etc. After a discussion about these texts, the class can read the commentaries, compare what Rabbi Tucker and Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum have to say about them and evaluate their own reactions.
  • Another comparative approach to the commentaries would be to introduce traditional commentaries and compare them with these by Conservative/Masorti rabbis. How does the "clothing" of Avot as understood by Rabbis Tucker and Elad-Appelbaum compare with more traditional understandings? Do the traditional commentaries reflect a people that is an am sifruti or an am hasefer?
  • It is unusual to have an Index for Pirkei Avot. An interesting way to use the Index for Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem would be for students to look through the index and note some of the concepts that appear and then look them up in the text and in the commentaries. The concept behind the index was to organize it in a way that reflects contemporary ideas and concerns which could provide new insights about the traditional text. Some examples of this are: free will vs. determinism; moral agency/authority; learning styles; perfection/imperfection; universalism/particularism.
  • Rabbi Elad-Appelbaum talks about the Torah as the "body" and the commentaries as the "clothing." Another approach to the text of Pirkei Avot is to trace the Biblical citations which are indexed to see the "clothing" that rabbinic tradition has provided and discuss how well students believe this "clothing" fits the body of the Torah.

Lesson plans for individual chapters of Pirkei Avot are also being planned and will be distributed to colleagues.

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