What counts as Torah? Who decides? What makes it into the canon, and what remains on the outside, seen as merely a “folk tradition”? These are the questions at the heart of Pirkei Avot, the tractate of the mishnah that we’ve been moving through in the Mishnah Collective’s daily learning.
As a Queer person, and as a person who moves through the world often erased, ignored, or objectified by traditional canons and the teaching of them, I’ve learned to be suspicious of ‘canon’ itself, of notions of fixed texts with parameters defined by external authorities. To define a canon is to exercise power, to declare that someone is “in” and someone else is “out.” Naturally, I bring this suspicion to the bet midrash, as I know many of y’all do, too. The more we’ve explored Pirkei Avot these weeks, the more I’ve felt seen by our Sages, who answer these questions of fixed Torah as radical theologians.
So often textual tradition is seen as in opposition to popular piety, to the wisdom of the people, and the experience of folks who were expressing their faith and religious intuitions outside of what is often seen as the elite, dominating space of Torah-learning and literacy.
While there is beauty and power in this suspicion, for me, in my own exploration of Masechet Avot, our sage Hillel has, over and over, provided an antidote to this critique. Many of Hillel’s teachings, which become embedded into our canon—our Torah—appear to be none other than proverbs of the people, sayings that were commonly spoken by the people around him. We first see this in Avot 1:13:
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר נָגֵד שְׁמָא אָבֵד שְׁמֵהּ וּדְלֹא מוֹסִיף יָסֵף וּדְלֹא יָלֵיף קְטָלָא חַיָּב וּדְאִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ בְּתָגָא חָלֵף:
Hillel used to say: One who stretches a name destroys his name. And one who does not increase, it will cease. And one who does not learn is bound by death. And one who uses the crown, goes.
Hillel’s teaching is in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, as he “shows his work” in incorporating the spoken language of the people into the mishnah. Here, it seems, Hillel is offering a proverb, a “folk saying” of the people in their own language as part of his own contribution to the Mishnah. Hillel has brought the spirit and the energy of his time so deeply and powerfully into the “fold” of Torah, so to speak, uplifting and naming the traditions of his time by passing them on as Torah.
Proverbs play a powerful pedagogical role in any given society. Several scholars (George J. Sefa Dei, Isaac Nortey Darko, Jodie McDonnell, Suleyman M. Demi, and Harriet Akanmori) in a beautiful treatment of African proverbs argue that proverbs themselves can function as an “epistemology of decolonization,” as a way of knowing that supports a group’s ability to assert power, resistance, and wisdom in the face of forceful hegemonic powers. Proverbs are disruptive to canons that attempt to dominate us:
“As epistemologies, proverbs shape our thinking processes and engage our embodiments, as well as our social, material, and emotional connections and acts like prisms of decoloniality. Proverbs offer spiritual dimensions to the realities of everyday life and social existence that are not always known and/or easily understood, and thereby offer multiple understandings of the world around us” (African Proverbs as Epistemologies of Decolonization, p. 11-12).
Hillel is at it again in Avot 2:4-7, where it feels as though he simply shares proverb after proverb after proverb:
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמִין בְּעַצְמְךָ עַד יוֹם מוֹתְךָ, וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ, וְאַל תֹּאמַר דָּבָר שֶׁאִי אֶפְשָׁר לִשְׁמֹעַ, שֶׁסּוֹפוֹ לְהִשָּׁמַע, וְאַל תֹּאמַר לִכְשֶׁאִפָּנֶה אֶשְׁנֶה, שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה:
Hillel said: Do not separate yourself from the community, Do not trust in your-Self until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you have arrived at his place. Do not say something that cannot be heard, [trusting that] in the end it will be heard. Do not say: When I am free I will learn. Perhaps you will not be free.
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:
אַף הוּא רָאָה גֻלְגֹּלֶת אַחַת שֶׁצָּפָה עַל פְּנֵי הַמַּיִם. אָמַר לָהּ, עַל דַּאֲטֵפְתְּ, אַטְפוּךְ. וְסוֹף מְטִיפַיִךְ יְטוּפוּן:
Moreover he saw a skull floating on the face of the water. He said to it: because you drowned others, they drowned you. And in the end, they that drowned you will be drowned.
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, מַרְבֶּה בָשָׂר, מַרְבֶּה רִמָּה. מַרְבֶּה נְכָסִים, מַרְבֶּה דְאָגָה. מַרְבֶּה נָשִׁים, מַרְבֶּה כְשָׁפִים. מַרְבֶּה שְׁפָחוֹת, מַרְבֶּה זִמָּה. מַרְבֶּה עֲבָדִים, מַרְבֶּה גָזֵל. מַרְבֶּה תוֹרָה, מַרְבֶּה חַיִּים. מַרְבֶּה יְשִׁיבָה, מַרְבֶּה חָכְמָה. מַרְבֶּה עֵצָה, מַרְבֶּה תְבוּנָה. מַרְבֶּה צְדָקָה, מַרְבֶּה שָׁלוֹם.
He used to say: More meat/pleasure/ripeness, more worms. More properties, more concern. More women/wives, more sorcery. More maid-servants, more lewdness. More man-servants, more robbery. More Torah, more life. More sitting, more wisdom. More advice, more understanding. More justice, more peace.
According to Hillel, this is Torah, y’all! Hillel names and uplifts these sayings, and claims it as part of the transmission of Torah that came from Sinai itself.
Hillel’s teachings are not about ensuring that a specific saying would be known to folks who were reading the mishnah hundreds of years after he spoke these words. I don’t think Hillel names these traditions because he wants us to follow them. I think he names them because he wants us to follow his lead. This is Torah!, Hillel is proclaiming. This is Torah—it is the wisdom of the collective that guides and shapes our lives.
We know about Hillel from other places in our tradition that he became, in the rabbinic imagination, a true model for looking out at the people, following what they were doing, and legislating their practices into the tradition. (As some of y’all might remember from Queer Talmud Camp 2019!) Hillel is known for inventing Prozbul, a legalistic loophole that enabled a cessation of loan forgiveness in the sabbatical year, overturning a Biblical law because he looked out in the world and saw that the people were not lending to each other as they should. A story in Masechet Rosh Hashanah teaches us that when Hillel forgot how to rule in a specific case, he stated “if they are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets,” suggesting that we follow the lead of what the people are doing. This phrase, presumably first uttered by Hillel, has become a powerful meme in our tradition, attesting to the power of ordinary people to behave prophetically.
As players-in-training, we have a bigger task than just learning the words and ideas of our tradition. We need to do more than look to the teachings of our ancestors for wisdom that we can apply in this moment. We must also root ourselves in the mechanisms, tools, and approaches that they drew upon in their creation of a new Jewish movement that enabled them to bring their deepest truths to the tradition. Our Sages, perhaps following Hillel’s lead, take every opportunity to expand what we mean when we say “Torah,” ensuring that our notion of canon never gets too fixed, defined, or limited. As they themselves define what counts as Torah, they do so in a way that models expansiveness and democratization: reinforcing the notion that what the people do—the experiences and wisdom of those who are the most disenfranchised and whose life and experience live outside of the bet midrash—is precisely what we must find, learn from, and uplift as Torah.
May we do the same: may we live into the legacy of our sages by expanding who and what counts as “Torah,” seeking and uplifting the proverbs of our people, and understanding the wisdom embedded in and beyond all corners of our community as essential parts of our canon.