Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary Book Review

Pirkei Avot stands out among the sixty-three tractates of the Mishnah as a treatise devoted to ethical exhortation and guidance. Some scholars claim it was originally a manual directed at rabbi-judges. However, there is no question that its words have gained widespread popular currency. Traditional rabbinic commentaries testify to the central role this text has occupied for generations. Its aphorisms and insights are quoted in countless contemporary contexts and precincts (not to mention sung in Jewish summer camps!)

The CCAR Press now joins this august list of interpretations and provides novel wisdom on this classical text through the writing of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, in his Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.

Rabbi Yanklowitz, ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is one of the most dynamic and charismatic Jewish social activists of his generation. He has become a powerful voice for social justice in our time and his commentary on Pirkei Avot is distinctive in its focus on this theme. Given the commitment of the Reform Movement to social justice, it is fitting that a commentary on this classical tractate be published under the aegis of the CCAR Press. In addition, the inclusive nature of the Reform Movement and the transdenominational reality of the American Jewish world is reflected in the Press’s decision to publish the thoughts of this open Orthodox rabbi on this unique text.

Rabbi Yanklowitz has drawn on a breathtaking number of sources and persons as well as his own personal experiences in composing his commentary. Commentators ancient and modern, men and women, Jew and gentile, as well as insights and anecdotes drawn from his own life and a variety of academic disciplines are all in conversation with one another in this pathbreaking commentary on this traditional text. Rabbi Yanklowitz describes his own aims here by citing the words of his “teacher Rabbi Yitz Greenberg,” who states that Pirkei Avot should “serve as an inspiration and a challenge to our generation to follow in the footsteps of the sages—to offer new wisdom, to uncover new revelation, to unite past, present, and future, and to help the Jewish people and all of humanity find their way through the next phase of the covenantal journey toward a perfected world” (pp. x–xi). Pirkei Avot, in the capable hands of Rabbi Yanklowitz, surely does this. Throughout, Rabbi Yanklowitz inspires.

Even more significantly, Rabbi Yanklowitz challenges his readers, as the title of his commentary suggests, to improve the world. He unflinchingly contends that these teachings of the ancient Sages clap “a moral yoke upon the Jewish people” (p. 11).

Rabbi Yanklowitz also does not shy away from dealing with difficult passages that are at odds with a modern sensibility. For example, 1:5, which states, “Anyone who talks excessively with a woman causes evil . . . ,” is surely problematic for anyone who possesses a contemporary notion of gender equality. Here Rabbi Yanklowitz contextualizes the passage historically and then insists, quoting both Judith Plaskow and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that we must move beyond the rigid and restricting gender roles imposed by an ancient social order. Instead, Judaism today “must be adamant about embracing feminism and women’s equality” (p. 19). Elsewhere, he writes that Judaism needs to foster “new models for peace, equity, and justice” (p. 30) and urges Jews and others to emulate “Hillel’s peacemaking and love sharing” (p. 41). On 1:14, “If I am not for myself,” Rabbi Yanklowitz acknowledges that it is challenging to find “the proper balance between religious self-preservation and self-sacrifice” (p. 44). Of course, this means that each of us must “embrace doubt and reflection.” Nevertheless, Rabbi Yanklowitz contends that “doubt and reflection” cannot allow humanity to surrender to “paralysis” (pp. 50ff.) and he points out over and over again throughout the pages of his commentary how the resources of Jewish tradition can provide guidance and direction for modern persons.

Such insights, buttressed by a wide variety of voices, fill the pages of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and make it well worth study and reflection. For all of us who will have the privilege to read his commentary, we can only thank Rabbi Yanklowitz for the inspiration and uplift his book brings. The CCAR Press is to be applauded for providing this work to the public. It should become a staple text in synagogue and home, in classrooms and in community.

This is an excerpt of a book review for Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary that appeared in the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Winter 2019.  Rabbi David Ellenson is chancellor emeritus and former president of HUC-JIR. He is also former director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and professor Emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University.