Every culture and faith tradition has its source of inspirational nuggets of eternal wisdom. In Daoism, there is the Dao De Jing. The Mormon canon has its Doctrines & Covenants and Islam has the hadith. Even the United States has Poor Richard’s Almanack to look to for pithy sayings of mighty consequence. The Jewish tradition has countless anecdotes of imparted wisdom that guide countless people to navigate the world ethically and with purpose. Outside of biblical sources, the most succinct collection of sayings and parables is Pirkei Avot—the Ethics of the Fathers—a remarkably dense tome whose brevity and judiciousness has inspired an incalculable number of leaders, scholars, and laypeople throughout centuries of Jewish history.
Pirkei Avot, in its rawest form, is a stew of biblical textual interpretation and criticism, precepts, hermeneutical and epistemological innovation, and a practical guide to operating in a philosophically complicated world. In its verses are some of the greatest debates ever recorded in human history. Certainly, the division between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel resulted in truisms that still hold court in the imagination of people to this day! It is not an exaggeration to write that the sayings that resulted from these disputes between great figures of Jewish history expanded the very consciousness of an entire civilization. These are the words that are etched on the vestibules of time and space, that are uttered on the lips from the youngest learner to the oldest pedagogue, that are placed in the forefront of the mind to stretch it into new vistas of possibility; to be sure, “as profound educators, the sages spoke and taught on their students’ level” (106). These qualities speak to the timelessness of a work that is a product of its time.
And indeed, due to its centrality in shaping the ethical development of the ages, the deeper meaning Pirkei Avot has constantly evolved, “[unveiling] a new level of revelation” with each successive generation, (xxviii). Significant Jewish thinkers over the centuries, from Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, to Rav Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (Sfat Emet), to Rav Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel (Maharal), have contributed their own interpretation of what the words of the early Jewish sages meant and will mean to contemporary adherents. And so it continues today…
Rabbi Dr. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg is the most significant Jewish voice in our time. His years of service in the rabbinate, as an organizational leader, as an author, and as an activist has allowed for great strides in prompting Jewish values across the spectrum of other religious traditions and cultures. Rav Yitz builds bridges within the Jewish community, builds bridges between faiths, and builds bridges between tradition and modernity. He has not only been the scholar that has facilitated the relevancy of modern Judaism, but has been the leader who has engaged in building and nurturing a vibrant Jewish institutional landscape.
It gave me such a thrill to see that Rabbi Greenberg just published a new commentary of Pirkei Avot titled Sage Advice (Maggid Books). It speaks to the capacity of the ancient sages to engender continuing relevance of their words and actions, presenting us with a singular resource that can (and must!) be interpreted again and again to continue to speak to our minds and souls.
This new tome is a perfect distillation of Rabbi Greenberg’s dedication to synthesizing complex scholarship with accessibility. With a lucidity that is a hallmark of his writing, Rabbi Greenberg’s commentary is as brilliantly thought-provoking as it is inspiring, taking each teaching of Pirkei Avot and breaking it down by section. Each passage gets its own analysis, and the critical reading of the text reveals the hidden wonders below the surface of the text. Rabbi Greenberg not only gives readers insight into the teachings, but a view of the men behind the text. This extra step, beyond looking at the plain meaning of the passage, adds a layer of psychological verisimilitude to these ancient axioms. Readers aren’t so removed from the words first recorded millennia ago. This is the secret weapon of Sage Advice: it’s not a prescriptive book, but one that invites readers to join an epic journey that transcends the mundane into more supernal realms of understanding.
In these pages, Rabbi Greenberg adds another vital voice to a tradition that takes great care in discerning the transmission of the tradition from one generation to the next. This is surely a book that will take a valued place on many a Jewish bookshelf. Deservedly so. Readers who finish the book would be remiss to not simply start over again immediately, and allow these ancient words of wisdom to seep into their mind to lodge and become real forevermore. Rav Yitz and his “Sage Advice” are a treasure to the Jewish people!
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.