Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary, new from CCAR Press. In this Q&A, he discusses why he chose to write about Proverbs and what readers can learn from the book.
You previously published two social justice commentaries with CCAR Press, on Pirkei Avot and Jonah. Why did you choose Proverbs as the text for your third commentary?
I believe the Book of Proverbs is one of the most overlooked books in the Tanach. And yet, its simplicity can speak to the complexities of our moment. In the twenty-first century, our identities, relationships, and choices are often more complicated than ever. As we grow in our complexity, it is imperative to remember the moral foundations on which our lives are built. For me, in this generation, Proverbs is about getting back to basics and returning to simple truths.
Many Jews might ask, “What even is the Book of Proverbs?” Contained in the Writings, the final section of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs is a work of ancient but timeless wisdom traditionally attributed to King Solomon. Dealing more with morals and ethics than the Divine, it can be of immense value to believers and non-believers alike. When I teach Torah, I try to pass on a version of the tradition that encompasses both the study of ideas and the translation of those ideas into real-world action. The Book of Proverbs offers us an excellent bridge between those ideals.
Proverbs is a very different text from Jonah and Pirkei Avot. Did your writing approach differ for this volume?
Absolutely. These three books are very similar in that they are all interested in translating ancient holy texts into relevant moral replies. But they are so different. Pirkei Avot is rabbinic, the Book of Jonah is a narrative, and Proverbs is from the wisdom literature. In the first two, I viewed my role as simplifying the complicated. But here, I viewed my role as complicating the simple. Proverbs distills our Jewish values down to their very essence and it reinforces our commitment to the integrity of a Jewish path. The texts can inspire us and challenge us to do more and live differently.
Did writing this book change any of your perspectives?
My main ideas did not change, but the book has the potential to transform us in subtler ways. For example, in a society that feels unforgiving and has us convinced that one mistake by ourselves or others makes us irredeemable, Proverbs reminds us that “Seven times the righteous one falls and gets up” (24:16). I paused to think about resilience, forgiveness, and redemption at a time when our society is struggling with extreme binaries.
Which proverb did you find most meaningful?
The book reinforces the notion that Judaism is about spiritual and ethical work and learning to grow in responsibility. Instead of providing indisputable answers, Proverbs often supplies us with contradictory lessons. For example, Proverbs 26:4 teaches: “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly, else you will become like him.” This is a useful lesson in the age of online mudslinging. Yet the very next verse tells us the complete opposite: “Answer a fool in accord with his folly, else he will think himself wise.” The reader is trusted to work out the application on their own. In an era where so many feel they have it all figured out, how do we engage, resist, or walk away from those we view to be destructive?
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
In a world that tangles and muddles our ideas of what our lives should be, the Book of Proverbs helps us return to the foundational questions regarding our relationships with good and evil, life and death, joy and sorrow. Our culture rewards our being compliant and undisruptive, but Proverbs drives us to take moral and spiritual action with clarity and courage. It challenges us to make distinctions between laziness and productivity, foolishness and wisdom, cruelty and justice. By studying this text, we confront the fact that we are constantly making decisions (consciously or not) about what kinds of people and Jews we are going to be. In today’s rapidly changing and exhaustingly overwhelming world, we can experience a great deal of fear and worry. We need to weather these storms together and hold each other closer. Only together, with grace and humility, can we courageously evolve. In the end, more than wanting readers to master the Proverbs from the Bible, I’d like to see them inspired to write their own proverbs that can help guide their lives.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is a global activist and the author of twenty-two books on Jewish spirituality, social justice, and ethics. His many works include the CCAR Press titles Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary (2018), The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary (2020), and The Book of Proverbs: A Social Justice Commentary (2022). The books are available separately or in a discounted bundle.