It is a custom to read a chapter of the Mishnah Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” on each of the six Sabbaths that fall between Passover and Shavuot. The traditional reason given for this is that derekh eretz kadma le-torah, that is that ethics are prior to, or a necessary prerequisite for, receiving the Torah, which is what the summer festival of Shavuot (at least in rabbinic tradition) celebrates. This is a nice thought but it isn’t entirely satisfying, since Pirkei Avot everywhere presumes revelation and extolls the life lived in its strong light. As the great literary critic Lionel Trilling once noted, Pirkei Avot views the Torah in something like the way Wordsworth viewed Nature, as “a great object which is from God and might be said to represent Him as a sort of a surrogate, a divine object to which one can be in an … active relationship.” Trilling was no kind of rabbinic scholar—he was familiar with Avot from idly flipping to the back of his prayerbook as a bored, bookish child in synagogue—but his remark is characteristically insightful. Pirkei Avot famously begins:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a fence around the Torah.
After this chain of tradition is established, the Mishnah proceeds to quote the sayings of individuals, the first of whom, Simon the Righteous, was a High Priest and “among the survivors of the Great Assembly” sometime in the early Second Temple period, who said that “the world stands on three things: Torah, service [in the Temple], and acts of kindness.” The next mishnah is the first to invoke a “father” who is not a prophet or a priest or—in the case of the Great Assembly—an amorphous body shrouded in myth.
Antigonus of Sokho received the tradition from Simon the Righteous. He said: Do not be as servants, who serve their master on the condition of receiving a peras (remuneration). Rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of peras. And let the fear of heaven be upon you.
What is the teaching of this proto-Rabbi? Antigonus’ saying does not deny that we are servants and God is the master. This is, in fact, a metaphor that the rabbinic tradition, and perhaps all of ancient Judaism, lives by. Nor would the plain sense of Antigonus’ saying seem to be denying that there might indeed be a peras, whatever sort of payment or reward that is. But such remuneration is, or ought to be, irrelevant to this service. On the other hand, if carrots are irrelevant, perhaps sticks are not: “let the fear of heaven be upon you.” It is a severe teaching, and one, moreover, that seems to contradict the general tenor of Pirkei Avot, each chapter of which is traditionally prefaced with the otherworldly (and somewhat implausible) rabbinic interpretation of a verse in Isaiah, which, on the face of it, makes a promise of land to the people of Israel rather than immortality to individual Israelites.
All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as it is said: “And your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of My planting, My handiwork, in which to take pride.”
Or, to take a characteristic teaching within Pirkei Avot, consider Rabbi Yaakov’s famous saying that “This world is comparable to the antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the banquet hall.” Isn’t this precisely what Antigonus would have called serving the master for the sake of a reward? (One manuscript tradition is so uncomfortable with Antigonus that it adds a blatantly implausible last clause to his saying: “… and let the fear of heaven be upon you, so that your reward in the world to come will be doubled.”) Do the ethical teachings of the rabbinic tradition more or less begin, then, with a denial of the prospect of rewards for good deeds in either this life or the afterlife—or at least of the relevance of any such reward? The answer of the later tradition would seem to be not really, but almost. Avot de-Rabi Natan, an early talmudic commentary on Pirkei Avot, tells the following story:
Antigonus of Sokho had two disciples [Zadok and Boethius] who used to study his words. They taught them to their disciples, and their disciples to their disciples. These proceeded to examine the words closely and demanded: “Why did our ancestors see fit to say this thing? Is it possible that a laborer should do his work all day and not take his peras in the evening? . . .” So they arose and withdrew from the Torah and split into two, the Sadducees and the Boethusians … and they used silver vessels and gold vessels all their lives … the Sadducees said “it is a tradition amongst the Pharisees to afflict themselves in the world, but in the world to come they will have nothing.”
It is often pointed out that Antigonus is a Greek name and the seize-the-day ethos of his latter-day students, at least according to their rabbinic opponents, sounds like a caricature of Epicureanism (if we drop the fear of heaven bit). But if this was a misunderstanding, how should Antigonus have been understood? Moses Maimonides’ answer was that the peras that Antigonus says a good servant ought not presume was not payment for services rendered. It was, instead, a gift given out of generosity or even grace. Rather than expect such kindness, a servant ought to serve his master out of love, a love that is precisely constituted by regarding the service as its own reward. Just as a student studies at first for the reward of grades, honors, degrees, but (eventually, ideally) he studies Torah for the sake of Torah itself. If this divine-service-for-divine-service’s sake constitutes love, why did Antigonus end his teaching with the fear of heaven? Because, says Maimonides, the tradition understands that love is, practically speaking, not always enough. It must be paired with fear or awe. The pairing of love and fear is certainly a rabbinic teaching, but was it Antigonus’? In truth we have only this handful of Hebrew words from Antigonus to go on, but none of them mentions love. In 1951, Elias Bickerman asked Maimonides a good question: “What is the merit of a slave who works without hoping for a tip?” His answer was that Antigonus’ saying was far more radical than Maimonides had imagined. Peras was not a tip at all. It was the basic daily living allowance due a slave. What Antigonus was saying was that there was no payment for good actions, at least none one could count on. Nonetheless, says Bickerman, Judaism taught “absolute obedience to the divine will,” without any promise of a final reckoning in the afterlife. Bickerman, who had escaped the Holocaust, hypothesized that Antigonus lived “shortly before or during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes,” the Hellenist tyrant whose vicious repression led the Maccabees to revolt. But even if Bickerman’s historical hypothesis is true, would Antigonus’ saying have been preserved in Pirkei Avot, if this was all there was to it, if it was only a dark teaching in a dark time? Vladimir Nabokov had a character whose proof of eternity was based on a misprint. According to the rabbis, their opponents the Sadducees did something like the opposite: They lost eternity based on a misreading of Antigonus. But why, in any case, did the rabbinic tradition preserve his saying? It seems to me that Antigonus’ teaching stands at or near the very beginning of a tradition that views humble obedience to an external law as a virtue, as, in fact, a central feature of a life well-lived. Antigonus’ teaching, on this reading, is not a statement of pessimism, it’s a description of moral life: this is what it feels like to be commanded. Kant, who put our modern moral sentiments into words before we felt them, once said that “kneeling down or groveling on the ground, even to express your reverence for heavenly things, is contrary to human dignity.” Is this what Antigonus requires of us? I would like to think not.
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