Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot: Moving Society Forward

One thing is certain. Our Reform congregants understand the concept of tikkun olam. They come to religious school with tzedakah in hand, participate in Mitzvah Day, and many attend local rallies such as the Women’s Marches and our teen-organized March for our Lives.  One thing is less certain. When asked which sacred texts ground their commitment to social justice, many congregants do not have a ready answer.

In his new book Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary from CCAR Press, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz inspires our communities to think more deeply about living ethically as individuals and as a society. While the six chapters of Pirkei Avot are traditionally read on the six Shabbat afternoons between Pesach and Shavuot – the richness of Yanklowitz’ commentary will take far longer than six Shabbat afternoons to ingest and savor.  His expansive work offers powerful teachings on the 129 mishnayot that make up Pirkei Avot — the most accessible tractate of our Mishnah. He offers an essay on each teaching, uncovering its timeless wisdom.

Yanklowitz’s book is scholarly and relevant.  He amplifies the single sentences of our ancient sages, weaving them together with wisdom from varied denominations and faiths and speaking to the countless daily opportunities we face for individual and collective ethical decision making. Yanklowitz relies heavily on mystical and philosophical texts, many of which are offered through his own English translation and most of which inspire action. On the notion of healing our world, he writes:

Tikkun ha-olam, repairing the world, hints at tikkun he-elem, repairing that which is concealed, whether from our thoughts or from our heart. Our job is not just to repair the world, but to make what is hidden visible and repair that, too. This includes the suffering of invisible people—those vulnerable people who go through life without the concern of the broader populace—while also combatting the pernicious and hidden forms of injustice, below-the-surface oppression, and scarcely seen brokenness that silently affect millions.” (p. 9)

Adding depth to the commentary, Yanklowitz uses the words of a broad range of present-day popular teachers and leaders. From weaving in Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg’s description of global human rights’ violations against women to his discussion on chilul HaShem, to sharing the teachings of the popular Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön’s insights on compassion, every chapter is replete with contemporary voices that bolster Pirkei Avot’s ancient and ageless instruction.

Yankowitz is an Orthodox rabbi, scholar, activist and powerful writer. His book makes it plainly clear that social justice is not just a liberal or Reform endeavor but a Jewish action and obligation incumbent on Jews across the denominational spectrum. The moral teachings that make up this profoundly important tractate of the Mishnah are meant to become a profoundly important part of our moral fiber.

This book is a valuable resource for any rabbi – from the Hillel rabbi who wants to share a text of Torah at his community meal, to the congregational rabbi who wants to add meaningful teachings to her Board or social justice committee meetings, to the preaching rabbi seeking ancient and modern gems for his sermon, to the contemplative rabbi who wants a new text for chavruta or daily personal reflection. It is the richest resource on Pirkei Avot I have encountered and a great addition to one’s rabbinic library.

Rabbi Yaklowitz sums the obligation of justice best. “We can address the messy outer work of the world only if we address the messy inner work in our lives.” (p. 420) Studying his commentary on Pirkei Avot, valuable mishnah by valuable mishnah, is a great path for us to take to move ourselves and our society forward.

Rabbi Judy Schindler is co-author, with Judy Seldin-Cohen, of Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America (CCAR Press, 2018).

Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Please be sure to check back on RavBlog starting this Friday, April 13, 2018.

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