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Introduction

The Book of Principles is one of the greatest books of all time. As a concise treasury of ethics for personal life, only the Analects of Confucius, from ancient China, and the Manual of Epictetus, from ancient Greece, compare to it. Like those other works, in some respects it shows its ancient origins. Yet like these it also speaks straight to the heart with a timeless immediacy and power. It speaks to each one of us, in each stage of life, with an immediate applicability to the important decisions we face.

The Book of Principles is, in contrast to the wisdom books of Confucius and Epictetus, a deeply religious book. It tightly weaves together the three strands of spirituality, right conduct, and learning, forming a seamless fabric, a pattern for life. The sages whose sayings are collected here were not simply trying to give good advice in pithy phrases, but were trying to etch the outlines of a Divine Plan for mankind, a ‘Torah’. They tried to identify principles which would not only improve the quality of life, but which would also imbue lives and relationships with a sense of the sacred, with holiness.

The purpose of this edition of The Book of Principles is to make the book accessible today, so that we can apply its wisdom in our own life decisions. Each principle is followed by a guide consisting of a commentary and discussion questions. The guide is designed to enrich the reader’s personal encounter with the sages. I have written it with these questions in mind: What should these principles mean to me, today? Can I accept this principle or not? And if I accept it, what difference will it make in the way I look at my life, and in the actions I take in love, work, family and community?

Many of the principles touch on issues of perennial controversy, and I highlight the controversies to help the reader decide for himself or herself how much of each principle he or she wants to accept. The give and take of live discussion greatly helps to clarify and deepen our understanding of how best to apply the principles in our own lives. While I hope that the solitary reader will find the book very rewarding, my fondest wish is that this edition of The Book of Principles will stimulate many lively discussions "for the sake of heaven," so that its wisdom comes alive for this generation.

Contents. The Book of Principles is a collection of ethical sayings of the greatest post-Biblical Jewish sages, through approximately the year 180, when the book was put in nearly final form by Judah Ha-Nasi. He included it as part of the summary of all post-Biblical legal rulings, which he also edited, called the Mishnah [recitation]. The Mishnah, together with the extensive commentaries on it, known as the Gemarah [completion], constitute the Talmud [study]. Each saying in this Book of Principles is also referred to as a ‘mishnah’.

Title. This book’s Hebrew title is Avot—literally, "Fathers". ‘Fathers’ here has a dual meaning. It refers on one side to the sages whose sayings are collected here. It also likely refers to the sayings themselves. One meaning of ‘avot’ is ‘a set of basic concepts’ used to classify specific cases. The ‘avot’ in this book are basic ethical concepts that can be applied to give us guidance in a myriad of life situations. Thus the longer Hebrew title, Pirkei Avot—literally "Chapters of Fathers"—can be rendered: The Book of Principles. (I will use the Hebrew and English titles interchangeably.)

Avot and the Bible. The sages’ outlook was firmly rooted in the Torah, the five books of Moses. However, the world of the sages was very different from that of the Torah, and the sages reconstructed the ethics of the Bible for their era, greatly expanding and sometimes fundamentally changing these ethics.

The world of the sages was many ways very close to our own. It was already a sophisticated world of the city, of commerce and international trade, of widespread education, including higher education, and of contact with many cultures. Judea was part of the Hellenistic world, and ancient Greek culture had a decisive influence on it, an influence which continues even in our own time. The key changes from the world of the sages to our world are: the presence of modern science, representative democracy, and feminism. The commentary and discussion questions explore the impact of these changes on the ethics of the sages.

The Book of Principles continues the Torah’s passionate concern with establishing justice, but introduces three key changes: a greater emphasis on love and peace, a devotion to book learning and rational discussion, and a belief in God’s reward and punishment of individuals in "the world to come," as well as in this world. These views fit together to form a whole. The right education would help to produce people who are just and kind. Thus society could rely more on education, and less on the harsh punishments laid down in the Torah. God’s providence—personal concern for each individual—and reward and punishment in this life and the next were also powerful motivations for right conduct.

Relevance Today. In the 20th century, our understanding of human relationships has advanced in many ways. However, 20th century psychology has been consistently weak in not recognizing and studying the key role of ethical values in good relationships. Avot and more generally the Talmud are treasures of detailed examinations of how ethical values and good relationships are intertwined. Though it is conceivable that one day our understanding of these issues may be far advanced from Avot, there is now nothing really more advanced for understanding of the impact of ethical values on personal relationships. Suprisingly, it is up-to-date.

Avot in World Literature and in Judaism. Because of the enmity which broke out between the followers of Jesus and those who stuck to Rabbinic tradition, The Book of Principles did not become part of the cannon of great ethical works studied in the Christian Western World. However, as twentieth century Christian scholars have recognized, the tradition of the sages in fact is the fertile ground from which Christian ethics arose. While there are important points of divergence between traditional Christian and Jewish ethics—and these are noted in the commentaries—there is also a larger common heritage.

Within traditional Judaism, The Book of Principles is, next to the Bible itself, the most beloved and studied work. It is reprinted in the prayer book, and is traditionally studied in Spring during the six weeks between the end of Passover and the beginning of Shavuot, or throughout the summer on Sabbath afternoons, until the High Holy Days begin in the fall.

In spite of its traditional revered place in Jewish literature, in the twentieth century Avot has been neglected within Jewish education outside the Orthodox world. It has not been not part of the curriculum for Reform or Conservative Jewish youths in America, and in Israel the focus in secular state schools for Jews has been almost exclusively on the Bible. This neglect of The Book of Principles has been a tragic mistake. For me, Avot is the heart of Judaism. Whoever doesn’t know Avot doesn’t know Judaism. And whoever knows Avot knows the heart of Judaism, whether they are Jewish or not.