How Should We Translate Pirkei Avot? Why Does It Matter?

May 20, 2019 by

How Should We Translate Pirkei Avot? Why Does It Matter?

A decade ago, Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss, now the Provost of HUC-JIR, taught me a new term: “gender-accurate translation.”

No, I was not new to ridding our liturgy and sacred texts of gender-based language. However, I had always thought of that process as changing the language of sacred texts, which would be more intrusive than correcting an error of the past.

Rabbi Weiss explained that our new Torah translations – in that case, in the Women’s Torah Commentary – would replace gendered language when the original text doesn’t specifically refer to a person or persons of one particular gender. God, for example, is explicitly without gender in our Jewish tradition; and yet, the inherently gendered Hebrew language refers to God exclusively as “He.”

Gender accuracy, done right, needn’t be noticeable, let alone jarring. None of our current CCAR prayer books refers to God with gendered language, and the English flows seamlessly.

At this season of sfirat ha-omer, counting the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, from liberation to at Sinai, we read Pirkei Avot.

Many of us are familiar with Pirkei Avot, or at least some of its most famous aphorisms. For example: “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone. Who is strong? Those who conquer their impulses. Who is rich? Those who are happy with their lot.”[i] Did you notice that this translation is gender-accurate? Other translations render: “Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men,”[ii] and so forth. Clearly, though, the lesson is valuable for everyone, regardless of gender, there’s no reason to believe that even the ancient rabbis intended their teaching to refer only to men.

In his new book on Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz writes that the title of the book “[l]iterally … means The Chapters of the Fathers[iii] The word avot may indeed mean “fathers.” However, the way a gendered language works, avot can also mean “ancestors.”

Rabbi Yanklowitz writes that we might understand the word even more broadly: “The Hebrew word avah (of which avot is plural) is found in Proverbs 1:30, meaning, ‘to lead through advice.’ Therefore, another way to understand the title of this work is The Chapters of Advice.”[iv] That latter title is descriptive of the book, chock full of Jewish wisdom but without halachah, which characterizes the larger work in which it’s found, the Mishnah.

I have often taught, surely not originally, that every translation is an interpretation. Since other options are available, those who translate the title “Ethics of the Fathers” are choosing to emphasize the gender of its authors. I typically refer to Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Sages.”

Why does it matter?

  1.  Honesty. All of Pirkei Avot is articulated in the names of rabbis – that is, men of a certain class and education. However, Pirkei Avot is likely replete with mansplaining, that is, women’s ideas repeated by and credited to men. No generation is without its wise women and men, but women of the Mishnaic period would not have been credited with their own ideas. Moreover, all the rabbis quoted in Pirkei Avot had mothers, and almost all had wives, who had doubtless imparted significant insight to them. We must shed any doubt that women’s words and ideas are included in Pirkei Avot. Therefore, the suggestion that the book includes only “Ethics of the Fathers” is simply false.
  2. Respect. In a patriarchal society, such as one that gives voice only to men, women are undervalued. While our own culture is blessedly less patriarchal as that of Second Century Palestine, we would be wrong to insist that patriarchal influence has disappeared. When we unnecessarily and inaccurately credit only men’s wisdom in the past, we imply that men are the exclusive source of insight, even today. When we translate, we should open up the possibility that a sage could be a person of any gender. Doing so, we indicate that every person’s wisdom is equally valuable.
  3. Inspiration. Women who are rabbis of my generation often speak of the first time they saw or even just heard about a female rabbi. Previously, they had never internalized the fact that they could become rabbis or religious authorities of any kind, even if they knew that regular ordination of women as rabbis had begun in 1972. While we cannot name women who were sages during the Mishnaic period, by translating Pirkei Avot as “Ethics of the Fathers,” we close the possibility that a woman could be a sage. Using an accurate English name of the book that isn’t gender-bound, young women and girls may see themselves as they should, fully included in the chain of Jewish tradition that stretches from Abraham and Sarah to Moses and Miriam to this very day.

When I was ordained, half of my classmates were women. However, at that time, only twenty-eight years ago this month, the HUC-JIR faculty did not include even one tenured professor who wasn’t male. This month, new rabbis are being ordained by a long-tenured rabbinic scholar who is the College’s Provost, and she’s a woman. For the next generation of rabbis – and, more broadly, of the Jewish people, increasingly even in some corners of the Orthodox world – the term “sage” may finally include women.

As we count the days from Egypt to Sinai, reading Pirkei Avot this year, let us assure that our language is honest, accurately reflecting the past rather than the way that the past presented itself. Let our words convey respect for every person, regardless of gender, as we continue to dismantle the patriarchy. And let us inspire every Jew, of every gender and of every coming generation, to lead us into a future filled with wisdom.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 


[i] Avot 4.1.
[ii] Ibid., Sefaria translation.
[iii] Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, New York: CCAR Press, 2018, p. xi.
[iv] Ibid.

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1 Comment

  1. Jordan A Shaner

    Excellent work! I also want to point out that “Avot” in the context of talmud and halachic literature are foundational categories, (ie. the 39 “avot” of m’lacha which are prohibited on Shabbat), which give rise to derivative concern. Another way of translating Pirqei Avot is “Divisions of foundational categories,” a fitting title pointing out that the bedrock of Judaism is its moral and ethical dimension.

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