10 Minutes of Torah -  Jewish Ethics
  May 19, 2005
Week 78, Day 4
10 Iyar 5765
Ethical Teachings - Selections from Pirkei Avot*

*For the full text and comment, see Pirkei Avot by Kravitz and Olitzky, eds. (URJ Press)


5:7 Seven things distinguish a fool and seven things distinguish a wise. The wise person does not speak in the presence of one who is wise. The wise person does not interrupt when another is speaking. The wise person is not in a hurry to answer. The wise person asks according to the subject and answers according to the Law. The wise person speaks about the first matter first and the last matter last. If there is something the wise person has not heard [and therefore does not know], the wise person says, "I have never heard [of it]." The wise person acknowledges what is true. The opposite of all these qualities is found in the fool.


A fool...a wise person. The word golem, here translated as "fool," comes from biblical Hebrew meaning a shapeless mass or embryo. (Psalm 139:16) Rabbinic Hebrew carries the notion further. It understands the word to denote something unfinished or, as it is used here, the kind of person contrasted with the wise.

Golem gives Maimonides the opportunity to give differential definitions of five terms found in rabbinic literature that deal with folly and wisdom. They are bur, am haaretz, golem, chacham, and chasid. The first, for Maimonides, has neither intellect nor ethical virtues nor the ability to acquire them. Maimonides takes the word bur from the phrase sedeh bur, an "uncultivated field." (We might translate the term as "boor.") Am haaretz, for Maimonides, is a person who has ethical virtues but lacks intellectual virtues. Such a person is useful in and for society. (We might translate the term as "ignoramus.") Golem, for Maimonides, is a person who possesses both intellectual and ethical virtues, but they are in a confused and scattered fashion within that person. Like the word golem, meaning that which is unfashioned and unformed, so is such a person. (We have translated the term as "fool.") Chacham refers to a person whose intellectual and ethical virtues have reached their proper stage of perfection. (We might translate the term as "wise.") Chasid refers to a person who, having achieved perfection in both ethical and intellectual virtues, now prefers to stress the ethical virtues. (We might translate the term as "pious.")

(Pirke Avot, 80)

Davar Acher--Another Interpretation

This mishnah outlines the qualities of a wise person, ironically emphasizing the times that such a person does not share his or her wisdom. According to this tradition, wisdom goes hand-in-hand with humility and restraint. This seems to be borne out in what we know about the distinctive qualities of an excellent teacher. According to Diane Tickton Schuster, an expert on adult learning (particularly in Jewish settings),

Phoniness, arrogance, and other forms of self-importance are not tolerated for long by most adult learners. They expect their teachers to (a) use words and actions that are congruent; (b) admit to errors and acknowledge fallibility; (c) allow aspects of their personhood outside their role as teacher to be revealed to students; and (d) show respect for learners by listening carefully to students' expression of concern, by taking care to create opportunities for students' voices to be heard, and by being open to changing their practice as a result of students' suggestions" (Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning, 181).

In addition, the ability to see the limits of one's own knowledge is a quality that has been identified as distinguishing an outstanding student in current educational trends. Wiggins and McTighe identify "self-knowledge" as one of the six "facets of understanding." A student demonstrates self-knowledge when he can "(a) recognize his own prejudices and style, and how they color understanding; (b) see and get beyond egocentrism, ethnocentrism, present-centeredness, nostalgia, and either-or thinking; (c) engage in reflective metagcognition, recognize intellectual style, strengths, and weaknesses; (d) question his own convictions; like Socrates, able to sort out mere strong belief and habit from warranted knowledge, be intellectually honest, and admit ignorance; (e) accurately self-assess and effectively self-regulate; (f) accept feedback and criticism without defensiveness" (Understanding By Design, 67). In addition, the educator Deborah Meier outlines five "habits of mind," those habits of intellectually rigorous and sound thinking in every discipline. These also center around questioning and admitting the limits of one's knowledge: "How do you know what you know? What's your evidence? How and where does what you've learned 'fit in'? Could things have been otherwise? Who cares, what difference does it make?" (The Power of Their Ideas, 156)

What is the connection between humility as an intellectual strength and an ethical virtue? In the first few sentences of our mishnah, we see that a wise person demonstrates deference to authority and respects the wisdom that others bring. This reverence has an ethical element to it. Furthermore, humility can also lead to wonder, and this is the quality that leads us to spirituality and God. Unlike the certainty about the world that many fundamentally religious people wave as a banner, Judaism teaches us that our quest for God, spirituality and wisdom stem from our ability to question, wonder and admit what we do not know. As it is written in the book of Micah, "'He has told you, O man, what is good / And What the Lord requires of you: / Only to do justice / And to love goodness, / And to walk modestly with your God; / Then will your name achieve wisdom'" (6:8).

1. When is it difficult to admit what we do not know? Do you find that others respect the admission of ignorance or that they denigrate it?
2. If you supervise employees, act as a mentor, teach or raise children, how have you found is an effective way of teaching or fostering self-awareness and humility?
3. In your opinion, is the recognition of the limits of our own knowledge a valid path to God?

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