Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, published by CCAR Press in 2018. The book examines this classic collection of rabbinic wisdom through the lens of contemporary issues and moral philosophy. In this interview, he discusses his unique approach and what readers can take away from the book.
Why did you choose Pirkei Avot as the text for your first social justice commentary?
Pirkei Avot is a startlingly awesome work that consists of timeless life wisdom. Each time I read these stunning rabbinic texts, I feel a deep, burning challenge to strive more robustly for intellectual, spiritual, relational, religious, and moral growth. Pirkei Avot is a work that continues to keep me focused on this spiritual journey. It also serves as a reminder that the challenging, and urgent, societal work of advocating for ethics and justice starts with our own personal reflection, refinement, and character growth.
Pirkei Avot was written two thousand years ago. What makes it relevant to readers today?
Indeed, with many ancient texts, there needs to be a big leap in interpretation for them to be perfectly relevant in our day. So much has changed since the biblical and rabbinic eras. But this is not the case, I believe, with Pirkei Avot. If we feel called to ensure that a singular Jewish charge—the spark of Jewish life and learning—is kept alive and relevant for the generations to come, then Pirkei Avot may be the best set of classical Jewish texts to engage future generations.
Did writing this book change any of your perspectives?
It is easy for many of us, myself included, to be swept away by conformity, on a progressive bandwagon where the newest way of thinking ultimately becomes the greatest. Immersing in learning and commenting on Pirkei Avot reminded me that what enables Judaism to be so eternally cherished is not only our ability to evolve to the new moment, but also our most classical virtues of the past such as humility, consistency, and respect. Pirkei Avot reignites a flame where these values once again become exciting and relevant as an essential complement to postmodern thought and progressive action.
Pirkei Avot was followed by your second CCAR Press volume, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary. Despite their similar approach, what makes the two books different?
From my perspective as a Jewish traditionalist, progressive social justice activist—and a dedicated pluralist—the Book of Jonah is remarkable in its ability to speak to many populations at once. In this sense of moral relevancy, it is quite similar to Pirkei Avot. On the other hand, the literary genre of the biblical work of Jonah could not be more different from the rabbinic dispensary of wisdom found in Pirkei Avot. The rabbis are concrete, direct, and prescriptive, whereas the Book of Jonah is abstract, perplexing, and descriptive. The two works can inform each other—Jonah zooms in to the individual’s particularistic journey and Avot zooms out to the universalistic human journey.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary and The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, both published by CCAR Press, among many other books.