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INTELLIGENT COMMUNITY

“Sayings of the Fathers,” with a commentary for the 21st century by Esther Cameron

 

TO THE READER

Back in 1975, a friend placed a Jewish prayerbook on my table, opened it to “Sayings of the Fathers,” and said “Read this.”  Amid all the talk that was going on about social action, “Sayings of the Fathers” fairly yelled at me: “This is what everyone is missing!”

Recently, in an email conversation about the state of society, I found myself saying, “Read ‘Sayings of the Fathers’!”  Then it occurred to me to write this commentary on a text dating from a time that in some ways resembles our present.

“Sayings of the Fathers” preserves a tradition that began during what is known as the Second Temple period.  The Second Temple represented a partial restoration of a commonwealth that had been shattered and scattered by the Babylonians in the destruction of the First Temple.  The restored commonwealth achieved only transitory independence and after a few centuries became a subsidiary of Rome.  Attempts at rebellion resulted in the destruction of the temple, abolition of the local Jewish government, and banishment of Jews from Jerusalem. The people were scattered to the four winds (and they didn’t have Internet).  After this second destruction, around 200 CE, a group of scholars decided to write down the oral traditions that had accumulated since the return from Babylon.  The first result of their efforts was the Mishnah, a compilation of civil and ritual law which includes the tractate Avot (a word that means both “fathers” and “principles”). The commitment of the oral traditions to writing enabled the community to regroup in Diaspora and persist until this day.

I submit that at present, modern humanity is experiencing something like the crisis that prompted the formulation of Avot.  We are not talking, of course, about conquest by an imperial power, unless we regard the global corporations in that light. But if not an active plan of conquest, the dynamic of technology, corporate structure and commercial culture has tended to dissolve communal structures, leaving people isolated and powerless to express a collective will.  The Internet connects us after a fashion, but in a shallow and often destructive way.  

In this situation, “Sayings of the Fathers” has much to offer.  Its maxims are aimed not only at improving the spiritual health of the individual, but at orienting individuals toward community, rendering them capable of creating and sustaining community.  And indeed, nothing is more vital to the spiritual health of the individual than orientation toward community.

Over the centuries, many commentaries have been written on “Sayings of the Fathers.”  Some of them are excerpted on the Internet.  I have occasionally consulted this source.  But mainly, I have tried to write this commentary from the standpoint of the person I was in 1975, largely ignorant of the background of the text but suddenly addressed by it in the context of my own questions as a child of the twentieth (now twenty-first) century.  

Not everything in this text, of course, spoke to me equally.  But what did speak to me impelled me to look past the rest.  In this writing, I have considered whether to include only a selection of the sayings that spoke to me. But it felt impertinent to “edit” what is, after all, a sacred text.  The text must be seen for what it is, in its particularity as well as its universality. 

One reader of the manuscript constructed titles for the chapters and most of the individual sayings.  I did not want to attach the titles to the sayings in the text, preferring that the reader should come to the saying without a preconceived idea of what it is about; but I have added them as a table of contents at the end, as they may help the reader to go back to a particular saying.

Here we explore the profound wisdom of "Sayings of the Fathers," an ancient Jewish text that continues to resonate in our modern world. Unearthed from the depths of history, this collection of maxims holds the key to addressing today's crises. Delve into the timeless principles that offer guidance for personal spiritual growth and for, reestablishing communal bonds and empowering individuals in an era of isolation and disempowerment. Discover how these ancient teachings can illuminate the path toward building resilient communities and restoring collective agency in our interconnected yet fragmented world.

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