At SVARA we often say, “The Talmud is never really talking about what it says it’s talking about.” We focus on the text as formative rather than normative—the tradition is here to shape us, not necessarily by what it says, but by how it says what it says.
In our own chevruta, as two Queer learners committed to bringing our full selves and our radical politics to our learning, this has allowed us to have a more spacious relationship to texts that might otherwise be harmful, painful, or antiquated. When we focus on the process and see the content as secondary, we are opened up to the possibility of being deeply aligned with the methods of our Sages, even when we find that their rulings conflict with our values. We emphasize process over content, noticing the radical moves that the Rabbis make in their time, which inspire us to make the radical changes to and through the tradition that we need in our time.
But sometimes, we find genuine glimmers of ourselves, our truths, our ideals, and our experiences reverberating through their words. These moments are a true gift, in which we are seen by our history. This week in the Mishnah Collective, through our daily study of the teachings found in Masechet Avot (the tractate of the Mishnah known as “Avot”), we were blessed with one such moment:
הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ
Be careful [in your dealings] with the authority for they do not draw near to a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress. (Masechet Avot 2:3)
This teaching, potentially given over anonymously, is a popularly-quoted warning given to the community (in the plural, perhaps most accurately translated as “Y’all, be careful…!”) to beware of those who hold power.
Beware of the rashut / רָשׁוּת, this mishnah teaches us. The word for “authorities” here, rashut / רָשׁוּת, means “power,” “authority,” and “control,” pointing not only to people but also to the enterprise of power itself. In Rabbinic Hebrew, the language of the Tannai’im (the Sages who authored the teachings in the Mishnah), rashut doesn’t just mean any authority or power: it specifically refers to the Roman government in ancient Palestine. Beware of the ruling authorities, be wary of occupying powers, and those who have power over you.
The nature of רָשׁוּת , according to this teaching, is that those who have it support those who are marginalized when it is convenient, but are unable to rise in true solidarity when it counts. The root of הֲנָאָתָן (“their own interest”) is נוי, “beauty,” “adornment,” or “decoration.” In other words, power uses those who are marginalized as a decoration, being loving only when it will be adorning. This text speaks to the dangers of tokenization, and the ways in which solidarity is so hard to achieve, and is, in many cases, an unnatural outcome.
It’s powerful for us to feel our own anxieties and concerns reflected back to ourselves through this teaching, to feel so aligned with our Sages, who wrote it over two thousand years ago. As teachers exploring our own commitments to racial justice and interrogating white supremacy in and beyond our yeshiva, we feel a distrust not only in “the powerful,” (i.e. people in power) but also with power itself, both of which our mishnah warns us to approach critically and carefully.
Finding ourselves and some of our most pressing political concerns present in this ancient text reminds us to revisit its authors and their story. Masechet Avot is a compilation of wisdom teachings from the early Rabbis, the Tanna’im, who lived between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the Common Era. Though we most often encounter depictions of Masechet Avot as pithy, peaceful, proverb-like teachings about how to be a good person, the Tannai’im who authored it lived in a tumultuous time. They lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire. They were a colonized people, and they lived through numerous political uprisings and revolts for freedom against the empire. When we read them through this lens, living under a violent, powerful, and occupying government, it sheds new light on this warning about placing trust in authorities.
It feels resonant and acute to read this text as our communities and movements call for an end to police violence and anti-Black racism; as we remember trans histories of resisting police during Pride Month; as we embark on a journey within our yeshiva to create community safety & security plans that take seriously the calls from Black leaders across the country to divest from police. We feel honored to learn this text and to stand in the lineage of this teaching, so deeply reflected by the truth that it tells.
As we learn Masechet Avot each day in the bet midrash, during this time of pandemic and uprising, acknowledging the politicized history and contexts out of which these teachings emerged is paramount. In this time, as the depths of inequality and violence enacted by our own government and structures of society are laid so bare and made more clear than ever, we are emboldened by our visionary ancestors. They offer us, through this text and their history, a culture of integrity, humility, distrust of corrupt power, and courageous action.
May we heed their warnings, and build a yeshiva, and a world, free of state sanctioned violence and occupying power. A world where we can all be safe as our whole selves, a world our ancestors would be proud of.