Sage Advice

Pirkei Avot

By Irving (Yitz) Greenberg

Maggid Books, 2016, 338 pages


If a publisher was searching for a translator and commentator of the famed book of moral teachings called Pirkei Avot in Hebrew and Ethics of the Fathers in English, meaning traditional Jewish moral ideas, the publisher would find no one better than Rabbi Greenberg because he exemplified the teachings in his commentary to Ethics both in his religious practices and in his behavior to other people. Among much much else, he was the director of a multi-million-dollar philanthropy which gave away millions each year to further Jewish education and aid people. I was the director of another philanthropic organization for some four years and saw how he not only helped people through the organization he headed, but was also an inspiration and help to about a dozen other directors and Jewish agencies. One can see his knowledge of Jewish laws and traditions and his sensitivities to all God’s creatures in the comments he makes in this book.

Greenberg tells readers in his introduction that he has always been interested in the nineteenth-century Musar movement “which stressed that the Torah’s goal was to create a mentsch,” a human being of good character, and “Ethics of the Fathers fits this model.” The prophet Hosea reports God saying in 6:6, “I prefer loving-kindness to sacrifice.”

The opening statement in the Ethics, he writes, tells readers that the ethical teachings in the book “derived directly from the Torah given to” Israel. The Torah was composed in a way that not only allows but encourages interpretations that fit new situations. Our “capacity to elucidate new insights from classical sources [shows that] the Torah could contend with changing circumstances and be applied to unfamiliar situations.” These new insights are what we see in Ethics. We need to learn and live in accordance with these lessons, “join in the divine mission to complete the world,” refocus eyes and ears to see and hear the constantly new revelations, develop our spiritual antennae to detect God everywhere, and act to bring “God’s love and care to all creatures.” This is important. Living as God wants us to live will bring us “along the path to human perfection.”

His book contains an easy-to-read and informative (1) “historical-theological introduction portraying the synthesis between continuation [what is explicitly in the Torah] and transformation [the new ideas developed from out] of the Torah’s way,” (2) thumbnail sketches of the sixty-six sages whose views are in this book, views that guided people of all religions, and (3) a commentary “that seeks to understand the life wisdom” of what they are saying.

Readers of Rabbi Greenberg’s book will both enjoy what they are reading and learn much that they will be happy to learn.