Pirkei Avot: A guidebook for the new administration

The Bible instructs every Jewish king that he must have one book with him all the time: the Torah.
November 30, 2016

The Bible instructs every Jewish king that he must have one book with him all the time: the Torah. He should read it every day so that he will know three things: that he is accountable to God for his behavior as ruler; that he is bound by the Torah, the Constitution of his people, and is not above the law; and that he must not become arrogant and carried away by his power.

Last week, in a Forbes magazine profile, we learned that Jared Kushner, President-elect Donald Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, has one book prominently displayed in his company headquarters: Pirkei Avot, or “Ethics of the Fathers.”

Pirkei Avot is a collection of life wisdom sayings from the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah, the core of Judaism’s second most sacred text, the Talmud. What guidance or wisdom might he glean for his important role in the coming Trump administration if he reads the book every day?

As the author of “Sage Advice,” a translation and commentary of Pirkei Avot, I have more than a few thoughts on that question.

First, Kushner should be aware of when and why the book was written. The Mishnah/Talmud was written in the aftermath of the collapse of the ruling class of the Jewish state (Judea). The political/religious establishment was totally invested in the Temple-based religious system. When the Jews revolted, the Romans crushed the rebellion, destroyed the Temple and ended Jewish sovereignty. The establishment insisted that the Temple must be restored. To them, there was no other alternative but to repeat the past policies. They spent the next century trying to recover the Temple by military and political action — in vain. Exhausted, they disappeared from history.

The rabbis rose from obscurity, a marginal place in Jewish society. They brought with them a new policy option that saved the Jewish future. They would cut a deal with the Romans to accept Roman sovereignty in return for allowing the Jews to build an autonomous community, without a military or foreign policy. Within that society, Jewish values and religion would be rebalanced and revitalized. The people, led by the rabbis, would take greater power within the religion and build a better way of life — more local, more communal, more familial, more participatory, with more individual responsibility, religiously and socially. “Ethics of the Fathers” was edited to communicate to the masses this new religious and political path. The book consists of pithy wisdom statements from 66 rabbis, designed to guide people to live a more mature, more responsible, individual life and to build a better society.

Here are some specific wisdom statements that could guide the incoming administration.

1. Simon the Righteous says: The world stands on three pillars — on torah (Judaism’s vision of the world), on divine service (serving God/the ties of religion), and on acts of loving-kindness.

When you have lost the powers of the central government — or want to make them less central to society — focus on three other pillars: 1) Emphasize the greater purpose. Proclaim and repeat the vision of America — what makes it great, what there is to be proud of, how to make it a shining city on a hill. 2) Restore the base of faith and religious culture that has undergirded American democracy from its inception. Recruit the armies of believers whose commitment to love their neighbor as themselves can be enlisted to help those in need and bring society together across all religious lines. 3) Call on the civic society — the extraordinary grass-roots network of American goodness — to increase its help to the needy, to feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, welcome the strangers. Let all three sectors form a coalition of the caring to restore wholeness, solidarity and purpose throughout America.

2. Follow the policy advice of Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? 

Repair of the whole world starts with my country, my city, my neighborhood first. This is one of Judaism’s greatest teachings, but one of its least understood. Self-interest is legitimate. People work harder and produce more in an economy built on private property. Loved ones or family first is the natural, more human way to operate. Idealism to equalize society — or love of humanity — should never be used to legitimize overriding family or ignoring those to whom I am close.

Jared Kushner understood this message. He has modeled how to live this family solidarity. His father was and is an honest businessman and important philanthropist. He became overambitious, was politically active and overreached. Kushner, knowing his father’s true nature, stood by him and helped him through a term in prison, then restored him to the life of business, philanthropy and contributing to the good of society.

During the campaign, Kushner was pressed to proclaim that his father-in-law was anti-Semitic. He refused to echo the chorus, but spoke from his own experience. An observant, visible Jew, he was welcomed into the Trump family without hesitation. His extensive observance was honored and accommodated. The lesson for society is clear: Idealism and redeeming the world should never demand that the individual betray a heritage or sell out family. That was done in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China — with catastrophic results for society and for the intended good causes.

But if I AM for myself only, what am I?

It is legitimate — even important — to put America first. But this concern should grow and extend to the rest of the world. If policy concern stops right at the border, then it becomes the isolationist, regressive America First of Charles Lindbergh — a political grouping that turned a blind eye to tyranny and refused to hear the cry of the downtrodden.

To be responsible and loyal to your family means that you are a good person. If that help and loyalty stops at the family — to the neglect or abuse of everyone else — then you are Tony Soprano.

And if not now, when?

The time to start repairing the world is now. The beginning of a new administration is an opportunity to think fresh, to try harder, to surprise friend and foe alike by embracing the best possibilities.

3. Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. Who is truly strong? One who controls his impulses.

In exercising power, one can do tremendous good. If the power is misused, one can do tremendous damage. Think first. Review all possible options. It is important to cast the net of consultation widely. Do not give over policy formation to a narrow circle of insiders. Learn from opponents. Enlist the best and the brightest from every field. There is tremendous goodwill to improve America that can be tapped. When you rise over the heat and immediate focus of the campaign and learn from everyone what is best for the long term, then your policies are more likely to do good.

The greatest temptation is to get drunk on power. It is easy to feel empowered by victory, get carried away and push the levers of power to the limit. The first step to exercise power humanely is to be humbled by the challenge. The truly strong will resist the easy victories of celebrity and political standing and curb the impulse to do it “my way.” A sense of limits and the courage to exercise self-limitation will help a president’s confidante to stay on an even keel. The same impulse control will enable the whole administration to exercise power more constructively for the benefit of all.

4. Rabbi Akiva says: Every human being is beloved — for every human was created in the image of God.

According to the Talmud, this means that out of God’s love, every human being is endowed with three inalienable dignities: infinite value, equality, uniqueness. This means that humans are the most precious beings in the world. All the resources, all the money, all the care in the world is worth spending to uphold the infinite value, equality and uniqueness of the individual. This should be the lodestar, guiding the development of policy in every administration.

Even greater love was shown [by God], that God informed the human that [he/she] is in the image of God.

The president should repeatedly speak out that his administration is guided by the commitment to honor the dignities of every person. There is not enough money and energy in the world to honor these dignities fully. But the administration will do its best. He should use the bully pulpit of the presidency to repeat that every human being is in the image of God. This is his guiding principle. Because the president-elect has spoken out in ways that impugned whole groups of people (or, at least, were heard that way), it is all the more important that he speak out as president, regularly affirming this principle. This will bring more people to feel that he seeks to be the president of all. Never mind that past comments belittling women will be thrown back at him. He can show a greater love for America by repeating this principle of ultimate respect for women and for every group — white working-class, African-Americans, immigrants, LGBT, Christians, Jews, Muslims. Such statements will serve as a rebuke to groups that exploited his words to argue that their rights and equality depend on putting down the dignity of others.

5. Every argument/controversy for the sake of Heaven will have an enduring outcome. If it is not for the sake of Heaven, it will have no enduring outcome.

Arguments and policy disagreements are essential for democracy. But the key is to argue for the sake of the good of society.

Korach and Moses’ controversy started as a fight for political leadership. But Korach turned to demagoguery and the clash became a no-holds-barred, all-out attempt to destroy the other. It ended with a catastrophic defeat of Korach but no one really gained. 

Hillel and Shammai differed significantly on hundreds of issues and community policies but they argued within the broad limits of society’s consensus. Far from delegitimating the other, they listened closely. The Hillelites even taught the views of Shammai first when they trained their own scholars. They became the majority and their decisions ruled society — but they were accepted by everyone. The result was a win-win for society.

This passage reminds us that a good fight is healthy for democracy — as it is for a good marriage. But the key is to argue, even strongly, within a framework of common values and mutual respect. Neither side should propose such extreme policies that the other finds it intolerable or beyond evoking any respect.

As the transition begins, Kushner can teach the new administration the value and wisdom of a good controversy. Some of the campaign proposals were not just against the establishment or against the conventional consensus. Some were shocking. Some of the candidate’s statements went beyond rebuking political correctness, such as the Obama administration’s inability to name the dangerous enemy “Islamic terrorism,” and turned into demonizing whole groups. The experienced delegitimization has now been turned into denials of the legitimacy of the incoming administration. This is a bad controversy in which everyone loses.

The president-elect has a special responsibility — and opportunity — that he can fulfill as president. If he acts, he can strengthen himself and boost his chance of success and realize his best goals. This Mishnah suggests that he should review his proposals in order to bring them into the range of political controversy that is acceptable to both sides. He need not give up his distinctive ideas. He needs to restrain all of them so they will not impinge on others or damage them.

The president can clarify that he seeks better vetting of potential immigrants, and not the blanket exclusion of all Muslims. He can push for deporting criminals among illegal immigrants but actions to round up and expel millions of innocents are out of the legitimate range of policy. He can build out the fence or wall to reduce illegal crossings from Mexico but must make clear that he will not treat all Mexicans as rapists or criminals. He can walk back his talk of
using torture (or the talk around him of registering all Muslims) and make clear that all tactics will respect human rights as defined in the Constitution of the United States. He can even argue that he wants to help the thousands of workers left behind by the decline of the coal industry or that he wants to shift the balance to enable more use of fossil fuels — but he cannot dismiss (as a Chinese hoax) all the evidence for global warming.

The above does not mean that progressives — or, for that matter, the actual majority of individual voters who cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton — will accept his policy directions. But that is what the political culture of democracy is all about. He has a chance to advance his agenda and to try to persuade the voters to follow his plans. As he brings his policy proposals into the reasonable range of the consensus, he can stop the denial of his legitimacy. This would be good for the American polity overall — because the refusal to accept the results of a fair election attacks the foundations of democracy.

Let me end this reflection with the words of guidance from Rabbi Hanina in Pirkei Avot. We should all pray — and work — and compromise — and come together — for the sake of the well-being of the government. This includes assuring its acceptance and legitimacy even in the eyes of those who are not exercising power. Without the government, Hanina says, we would be living in a jungle.

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg is founding president of the educational organization CLAL, and founding president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation. He served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council from 2000 to 2002.

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