Ethics from Sinai

Avot (1:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 9 years ago

This week we began studying masechet Avot; or as it is more commonly referred to as Pirkei Avot. As the Rambam notes the contents of the masechet focus on chasidut and mussar – ethical behaviour and positive character traits. As the Maharal puts it, while not mandated explicitly by any positive and negative commandment, logic and sense obligate their practice and adoption. With this in mind, the opening of the masechet gives one pause for thought. One might have expected an immediate listing of some of the fundamental principles or practices. Yet, we first learn about the transmission of the teaching of the Torah from Moshe up until the Anshei Kenesset Ha’Gedolai. Why?

The Bartenura explains that there are libraries filled with books on ethics. The contents of these works were derived by their respective author’s intuition or research and subject to their personal priorities and understanding. So that the reader should not think that this masechet is a similar such work and that all the principles contained were simply innovated by the sages that mentioned them, the Mishnah opens by explaining that these lessons contained were transmitted from Sinai. Or to put it in the words of Irving Bunim z”l:

…to assure the student that if he seeking the classic Jewish view of ethics, he has come to the right source. Here you will not find cultural borrowing or the product of Persian and Greek influence… Here is indigenous Jewish material faithfully transmitted from its original Divine source.

The Tifferet Yisrael takes a different approach to the question. He explains that it was necessary to dispel the notion that one could solely be engaged in the study and performance of mitzvot without exerting effort in improving one’s character traits. Chazal speak of dire consequences of those that adopt that approach. The Mishnah therefore teaches from the outset that derech eretz is part and parcel of the Torah transmitted from Sinai.

The Tifferet Yisrael however offers another explanation based on the teaching: “if there is not Torah there is no derech eretz.” He explains that belief in Torah is necessary for meaningful ethical behaviour. Anyone that does not believe in the Torah or divine revelation does not believe that his actions and behaviour are being observed. Positive behaviour is engaged for social acceptance or simply because weakness and wanting to live in peace. Negative behaviour is avoided out of fear of repercussion.

In contrast, Rabbi Sacks (The Great Partnership) argues that one does not need to be religious to be ethical – claims to the contrary would be “arrogance, not humility, and it is, in any case, simply untrue” (p127). Nevertheless, “Conscience, the voice of G-d within the human heart, would, without religious faith, be more and more easily ignored.” (p128)

Irving Bunim notes that while the Chachamim teach that derech eretz could have been learnt from various animals, the lessons would have been inadequate. In one examples, while he admits that ants do not steal from one another, collectively they are “parasites, pillaging from the labours of others.” He surmises that:

Nature is a poor teacher indeed. Without Torah, morality becomes the interest of the powerful, and ethics a pretext for exploitation. “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai.” A new light burst upon the world. Many finally perceived the source of decency. Humanity heard the categorical imperative, the ultimate rule of morality.


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