Desert Island Texts

Desert Island Texts

If you were cast away on an island with just one Jewish text for company, which would you choose?

This week Robert Weiner, chairman of the Movement for Reform Judaism, selects: Pirkei Avot.

It is a long-held tradition to spend part of Shabbat afternoons, especially at this time of year between Pesach and Shavuot, engaged in the study of Pirkei Avot.

Usually translated as the Ethics of our Fathers, it introduced me to the joy of study of Jewish texts and I have many treasured editions, including a selection in the Reform Siddur. Sadly, just one copy would accompany me on my desert island but regardless of which one I choose (and it would be a difficult decision), I know it would be a trusty companion in my isolation.

Literally Chapters of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot is a tractate of the Mishnah containing short statements of teachings and aphorisms of the rabbis. One explanation of the title is that these rabbis were the spiritual ‘fathers’ of the Jewish people.

The chapters are inspirational, sounding out moral and ethical principals in clear and concise chapters. My particular favourite notes that: “Rabbi Ishmael says be respectful to your senior, and be patient with your junior, and welcome everyone cheerfully.”

For me, this says so much about how we as Jews should build inclusive and welcoming communities and how we should practice Judaism. Regardless of age, gender, sexuality, religious or ethnic background, our communities should greet all with respect and equality.

We must treasure the contributions made by members and visitors young and old and have an open attitude to those who seek to join us. I might not have much, if any, company on my island, with no one to welcome, cheerfully or not.

But Pirkei Avot would remind me of the world beyond and the principles that guide my Judaism, how I engage with our community and with the wider world.