Pirkei Avot and Chinese Culture: A Comparative Survey

One initial remark about the title “Rabbi”: in our tradition, it does not designate a ritual position. Unlike a priest – Christian or Buddhist – it is a title given to a Jew who passes certain examinations, to prove that he is a scholar in Jewish subjects.

Pirkei Avot is a small part – one of sixty – of a much larger collection, which itself is a part of an even larger series of books, created in the second classic period of our culture (roughly between the years 500 BCE to 500 CE). This period began at the time of Confucius, and went on for some thousand years, which in China ranges from the time of the Three Kingdoms up to the creation of the Great Empire Dynasties.

Pirkei Avot can be said to be second to the Bible in our classical heritage, because of its very special features. This book deals mainly with morals and ethics, and not so much with fate or religion. In our culture, as in yours, there are some organized books that deal with morality and ethics, and outline a world-view. This book, however, is not an organized work about ethical subjects, but rather a collection of sayings.

Although edited by one person, around the year 200 CE, it is the fruit of the thought not of one single person, but rather of numerous Sages who lived over the course of some 500 years. Yet all of these sayings can, and should be, considered part of a philosophical unit. At the same time, it is obvious that not all of the Sages quoted here speak the same language, or say exactly the same thing, and consequently one can find conflicting ideas.

One such instance is found in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avot, paragraph 20: “Studying at a young age can be compared to something written in new ink, on a new sheet of paper. And studying at an old age can be compared to writing on old, reused paper.”

The Sage who said this lived around the beginning of the Christian Era. A much later scholar says something similar, but not identical; (Ibid.): “A person who learns from young people, is like one who eats unripe grapes or drinks wine that has just been pressed. One who learns from old people, is like a person who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.” And a third Sage (Ibid.) expressed an entirely different opinion: “Do not look at the container, but look at what is in it. For you may have a new container with good old wine in it and an old container which does not even have new wine.”

On the one hand, this is the old problem of who are the masters of wisdom. On the other hand it is also a very modern problem: Who is it that we should learn from? Is old age an advantage, or is it of no consequence whatsoever? Who should be the ruler of a country? Should he be an old wise man, or a young and very modern person? Some say young people are not suitable because they are not ripe and inexperienced; others say, that there is no direct correlation between age and wisdom; there can be very young people who are wise, and very old people, whose only claim is that they happened to have been born earlier.

There are many more examples of different, even conflicting, ideas in Pirkei Avot. Yet despite that – and this is indeed one of the most remarkable aspects of this book – Pirkei Avot reflects a unified system of thinking, because it is a reflection of a culture.

I would like now to remark about a few points of similarity and dissimilarity between the Jewish and Chinese cultures.

At a first glance, Pirkei Avot looks very much like the collected sayings of Confucius: it has the same style, and seems to have the same way of thinking. A more profound examination, however, will show that in fact, it is more like the work of Menzius, in terms of its view of morality and of ethical values.

But in fact, in both details of style and the general way of thinking, Pirkei Avot bears an inner resemblance to the basic book of Dao. For one thing, Pirkei Avot uses a more poetical language, which is much fuller of parables and metaphors than that of Confucius, and therefore more similar to that of Lao Tse. In addition, unlike Confucius, Pirkei Avot uses ways of thinking which are, in themselves, dialectical and paradoxical.

One string of paradoxes, which deal with the question of what comes before what, is found in Chapter 3, paragraph 17: “Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says, when there is no Torah there is no derekh eretz; when there is no derekh eretz, there is no Torah.” Torah means learning and knowledge, the whole body of learning. Derekh eretz means the right conduct.

Derekh eretz is very important in both our cultures, for in both of them there exists a whole code of behavior, which is not necessarily connected with moral or religious conduct, but rather deals with how a person should behave in society. This goes from seemingly simple and even trivial matters – such as who should enter or leave a room first, who sits at the head of the table, which hand to use for what functions, and so on – to more complex issues, such as what is the right relationship between young and old, pupil and master, man and woman, etc. Or the significance of colors: In Chinese culture, yellow is of utmost importance and is always positive. In Western culture, its meaning is either unclear or negative. This difference is not only psychological, but also cultural.

All of these details, however superficial they may seem, reflect basic philosophical notions about the universe. Therefore, in both cultures, derekh eretz fulfills a very important role not just in determining behavior in life in general, but also for deeper guidance.

Let us go back to Chapter 3, paragraph 17. “If there is no Torah, there is no derekh eretz” means, that one should start with high theoretical knowledge, and from there seek the right way of conduct in social life. But the other part of this statement contains the opposite idea, namely, that “if there is no derekh eretz, there is no Torah,” which means: If one does not have good manners, one cannot achieve theoretical knowledge. This statement is only one of a series of statements, which are all phrased in a similarly dialectical manner. Typically, the paragraph contains no synthetic answer, for the synthesis is the work of the learner.

All the above has to do with style. Content-wise, however, there are several very striking similarities between the two cultures. First and foremost, one of the central themes of Pirkei Avot is the great importance attached to wisdom. Second is the strong emphasis on tradition. Other points are filial duty towards father and teacher, the importance of ritual, and others.

Another point, which is also a basic moral issue in this book, is the relationship between theory and praxis. I have reason to believe that this problem has been dealt with intensively in this country in the last fifty years. In Pirkei Avot, the question is discussed in great detail, and the basic answer is that theory without praxis is unstable.

But in addition to the similarities, there are also profound differences, and I will point to at least one or two.

One major philosophical and cultural difference is in the relationship between morality and religion. In Chinese culture, there is an almost absolute separation between these two spheres, since religion – namely, the relationship between man and God – is basically ritual, and has little to do with the world outside of the Temple. Whereas in Jewish culture, the opposite is true: morality is based upon religion, and man-and-God and man-and-man relationships are not seen as two separate spheres, but rather as two aspects of the same whole.

This difference is not only philosophical, but has also great bearing upon the development of morality and of the culture as a whole. In Chinese culture, morality is basically a social and inter-personal relationship that has social and political meaning, but does not have a relationship with objective, abstract and absolute values. In other words, this morality is relativistic, seeing good and evil not as absolute values, but rather as definitions of what is socially and socially politically right or wrong.

In sharp contrast to that, Jewish morality contains, from its very first beginning, absolute values of good and evil. Chinese culture had one major encounter with a different cultural system that had an absolute value system, though it had no God, and that is Buddhism. (I am speaking now about the theoretical encounter with Buddhism, and not about what happened to Buddhism when it became a Lamaistic religion, or a Dao-Buddhist popular religion.) In Buddhism you have this notion that certain things are bad, regardless of social context, and if one does them, it changes one’s karma, causes one to have a lower incarnation, and vice versa. And as the respective cultures develop, this point, in itself, creates a sequence of cultural and philosophical differences.

Another, more tenuous point of difference between our two cultures, has to do with the attitude towards tradition. Pirkei Avot is based upon an ancient tradition, to which it continuously refers from its very first paragraph. Likewise, in the writings of Confucius one gets the similar feeling that everything in these books is really not new, but rather is the wisdom of the ancestors.

But underneath this external similarity there is a profound difference. In the Confucian tradition, the scholar always was, or tried to be, identified with the establishment and the contemporary rulers. In Taoism, when a master did not approve of the behavior of his prince, he would just make a very mild remark to the effect that it is not exactly the right way to behave – or, if he felt very badly about it, he would resign and go elsewhere; but he would never say that the government should be attacked. Only in the works of Menzius can one find some hinted remarks about the possibility of saying or doing something in that direction. All this is, as I said above, one outcome of the relativity of good and evil in Chinese culture.

In Pirkei Avot, and the other books around it, we find a different view. Although Jewish tradition in general is very much in favor of tradition, and although it also maintains that government should be obeyed, if the government passes a certain red line of immorality, then it loses its right to rule, and the people are obligated to revolt against it and overthrow it.

Symbolically speaking, Chinese rulers, whatever titles they had, were always the sons of Heaven, and the scholars were their servants. In Jewish culture, the ruler was never considered a son of Heaven. In chapter 4, paragraph 13 of Pirkei Avot it says: “The world contains three crowns,” that is, three types of greatness: “the greatness of the priest,” who deals with ritual; “the greatness of the king” who, in certain ways, is greater than the priest; and highest of all – “the greatness of the scholar.” In another Jewish book (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Horayot, page 13a), there is an even more precise hierarchy. Highest of all is the king; then come the High Priest and other officials. However, this applies only when all these people are otherwise equal in knowledge. If one is a scholar, even if he comes from the lowest family and is, socially and ritually, of no consequence, he still is considered to be on a higher level than a king.

This difference of approach also had some practical implications. Both the Jewish and the Chinese rulers had an army and a police, even when their rule was merely theoretical; whereas the scholars sometimes did not even have money. They had knowledge, but no money and no power. This was true for both countries. The theory behind this reality, however, was different. Consequently, according to Jewish law, in a case of two people who should be saved from trouble, but only one can be saved; if one is a scholar and the other is not, even though the scholar is poor and of low descent, and the other – both a Priest and a king, it is the scholar that should be saved first, whereas the king should wait, or even die.

This law is connected with the notion that there is an absolute law, which is beyond the power of money, of family origin, even of kingship. And it is the highest power that creates the rules. This does not mean that the scholar is always against the government, but it does mean that the government has no absolute rights; it is subject to a higher law, and if it breaks that law, then one has the right and the duty to fight against it. All of this, however, is ancient Jewish law, which today is purely theoretical in 20th century reality.

Questions and answers:

Q: What is Torah?

A: Linguistically speaking, Torah means both “the body of knowledge” and “teaching.” In this sense, it is very much like the meaning of the notion of Dao; it is the way of life, the way in which life should be conducted. However, Torah is not just pure knowledge as such. For example: the term Torah does not include mathematics, even though there are intellectual and practical connections between these two areas. To use an image from physics, Torah is knowledge that has a vector, a direction of movement, whereas other knowledge is non-vectorial. And so Torah is not just an accumulation of connected facts: it is always a knowledge that shows a way of life. Thus the difference between learning Torah and learning other knowledge is like the difference between studying simple dimensional mathematics and vectorial mathematics.

For the sake of precision I should add that sometimes, the word Torah has a specific meaning – namely, the Five Books of Moses. But in Pirkei Avot and elsewhere, Torah always means a general type of knowledge that teaches a way of life. In another book it says that everything, even heaven and earth, has limitations; only Torah has no limitations (Midrash Genesis Rabbah section 10). With all that, however, the study of Torah is not emotional or intuitive: it is dealt with almost like the study of mathematics. It may be defined as a scientific, dialectical, logically organized method of dealing with intuitive material, with a higher knowledge. And it is a learning process that continues forever.

In mathematics, there are axioms: a point, a line, a dimension, measurements, numbers, and so on; and then there is a formal and logical way of combining them. The basic materials of Torah are different; it deals with right and wrong, good and evil, what one should or should not do. And these basic materials are then developed into a logical, intellectual construction.

Q: What is the meaning of wisdom in Judaism?

A: In one dimension, wisdom is the right understanding of everything – moral and intellectual problems alike – right not in the moral, but in the intellectual sense. That is to say, that every subject of knowledge is connected with wisdom. In the above-mentioned series of paradoxes in Pirkei Avot (chapter 3, paragraph 17), there is the following paradox: “If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge.” In other words, knowledge is not just a static collection of materials, but it is also the ability to use it correctly. In Jewish tradition, a person who has only knowledge is likened to a basket full of books (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, 28b). Whereas the official title that we give to the old scholar is talmid hakham, which means, “the disciple of the wise.” This is somewhat similar to the Greek concept of philosophos, a lover of wisdom.

Q: What is the role of the Jewish scholar?

A: In addition to his ability to memorize and understand texts, one of the most central drives for a Jewish scholar is to innovate. To use a possibly low metaphor: Confucian scholars wanted to have an old woman in an old dress; modern culture wants a young woman in modern dress; and Jewish culture prefers a young woman in an old dress. Thus, although the Jewish scholar always claims that he is just creating a commentary, he is really constantly driven to create new things, new ideas.

The way in which the Jewish scholar advances is not only analytical, but also synthetic, in that he is always trying to create new structures all the time. Consequently, the way in which Judaism relates to non-practical ideas is very different from that of Chinese culture. Confucian wisdom was always very practical, and also strongly connected with science and technology. In this sense, it has had very strong influence on Western culture. In the Talmud, however – of which Pirkei Avot is about the 1/5000 part – there are pages and pages of discussion of subjects of no practical value whatsoever.

In the long run, this attitude has a tremendous advantage. Because the ability to advance – philosophically, scientifically and technologically – lies in the possibility to think about impractical, undoable things. Indeed, the history of scientific developments, shows that breakthroughs happen when a scientist begins to think about the impossible.

This essay was originally a lecture delivered at the Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai.