Authoritative scholars are the original intended audience of Pirkei Avot, Chapters of our Fathers. The tractate’s goal is to help form character rather than to transmit data, as other mishnaic and talmudic tractates do. The first chapter teems with warnings about speaking too much or hastily. The danger of words seems an odd concern for the progenitors of a vast body of conversations among many voices. Yet here, Shimon Ben Gamliel recommends silence and listening above speech and argues that acts outweigh words.
Teaching, judging, and leading all require language, but words are only part of how we influence others. We receive the words of tradition, but the only way to determine whether they transform us is action. Action is the inevitable result of words. It reveals whether the speakers are embodying their words or using them as disguises for far different outcomes. Actions also expose how well we listened to other conversation partners, how seriously we took their concerns and well-being. If we claim to love everyone and then oppress those unlike us, the malignity of our act unmasks the lie in our words. In a world of liars, integrity is difficult but precious. Like Shimon ben Gamliel, who was martyred by the Romans, we must make our acts guarantors for our words.
Interpreting the verse from Pirkei Avot (1:17), Professor Rachel Adler writes, “Shimon Ben Gamliel recommends silence and listening above speech and argues that acts outweigh words.” But in the text, Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel only recommends silence — not listening. Which raises the question: What kind of silence?
Maybe Professor Adler is right that the ideal person here is a good listener. Or, perhaps, someone who says, “Say little, do much,” in contrast to the pedant-sophist-hypocrite. Maybe even a first-century meditator (probably not).
But I wonder if this imagined ideal is more like Dostoevsky’s “man of action” — a thoughtless brute; as Rabbi Shimon says, “Study is not the most important thing, but action.” Silence can mean a lot of things, many of them awful; there are silences of assent, conformity, obedience, intimidation, violence.
Adler goes on to say, “Action is the inevitable result of words.” Inevitable? Isn’t the point here that some words lead to no action, like Pax Romana-era Facebook posts? Perhaps that’s what Rabbi Shimon means by “He who increases words brings sin.” Adler again reads him in the best light when she writes, “We must make our acts guarantors for our words.”
But I see something darker in the text: a mistrust of reasoning; a Trumpian contempt for detail, argumentation, analysis, science; anti-intellectualism; a concern that too much sophistication leads to error. Maybe it’s just the effect of our times, but I say: Count me among the sinners.
I spent a week last summer at Queer Talmud Camp, a program run by SVARA, a “traditionally radical yeshiva.” My chavruta (study partner) and I spent long hours studying texts in their original Hebrew and Aramaic, bent over our dictionaries, slowly uncovering the bones of an ancient argument about the release of debts during shmita, the seventh year of the agricultural cycle. Together, we mused and memorized, marveling at the fact that we — trans and queer Jews — had access to this text and this sweet process of learning.
For thousands of years, the privilege of Talmud study has been reserved for a select few. For me, the holiness of this learning was not about sages such as Hillel, or the laws of shmita, but rather the radical act of reading Talmud as a trans person. The words we read were profound, but made more so by the unique experiences and intuition each of us brought to the text. Learning Torah is an active and alive process.
While Professor Rachel Adler writes that “we receive the words of tradition,” she might agree that passively receiving these words is not an option for so many of us. For trans and queer Jews, the text does not at first seem to reflect our lives or holiness. In order to survive, our learning must be kinetic, and the Torah we teach responsive to our present realities. We must write ourselves into this old and ongoing story. And nobody knows better than queer and trans Jews that survival is an ongoing act of transformation, that change and transition allow us to hold on to what is precious while moving into a future we could never have imagined.