Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, with his most recent book, “Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.”


Americans spend billions on books and media in the self-improvement genre, whether on stalwarts like Tony Robbins or on more whimsical titles like the current New York Times bestseller “Girl, Wash Your Face.” Though the genre really took off in the 1930s, self-help texts have been around for much longer than that — including the section of the Mishnah called Pirkei Avot (literally: Ethics of Our Fathers).

“Unlike most texts found in the ancient Jewish literary tradition, Pirkei Avot is not a theological text in a rigid sense,” said Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, and author of a new book called “Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.” “Instead, it’s a document of moral observations, self-help and reflections about how to live a fulfilling life.”

This is Yanklowitz’s 11th published book. It was released earlier this year by the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press but its official launch is on Aug. 6.

The book is divided into six sections, one for each of the primary text’s chapters, and features a forward by Ruth Messinger, a former New York City Council member, Manhattan borough president and mayoral candidate.

“There is a brilliant focus in these commentaries on the core importance of living an ethical life,” Messinger writes. “The author makes it clear that we must care about and pay keen attention, first, to knowing ourselves and, then, to developing our relationships with others and with God, because these are essential to our being able to make a difference in the world.”

In the book’s introduction, Yanklowitz addresses a number of potential English translations of the book’s title while also reviewing the venerable text’s long and fascinating history.

“The English rendering of ‘Pirkei Avot’ often leads to us seeing the book titled as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ or ‘Chapters of the Fathers,’ though these translations may be misnomers,” Yanklowitz said. “While the word ‘avot’ might literally mean something akin to the patriarchs, the way that other commentators have interpreted the phrase may be that the word is more closely supposed to be ‘first principles.’

“Thus, ‘Pirkei Avot’ is actually the ‘Chapters of First Principles’ and, indeed, these principles are some of the primary precepts which help guide us through our lives so we can grow as righteous people.”

Given the brevity and directness of the original text, Yanklowitz believed it was ripe for an interpretation and commentary that was both accessible to those not familiar with the original yet still thorough enough to provide new insights and perspectives for those who have studied it.

To this end, Yanklowitz utilized a diverse array of commentaries and sources, from titans of the Torah such as Maimonides and the prophet Jeremiah to more contemporary figures such as folk singer Pete Seeger and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

“The commentaries I chose to base my commentary on came from a wide variety of sources and time periods,” Yanklowitz said, noting the diversity in tone and approach. “You [have] Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, whose commentary is mystical and far-thinking, whereas Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ and Rabbi Benny Lau’s commentaries are more academic, but still incredibly inspiring. On the other hand, Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg’s more contemporary commentary is more direct and impactful; there’s a great diversity in the literature.”

Yanklowitz’s desire was not only to provide exegesis of the text, but also to see how it served as “a platform for great thinkers from across millennia [to] debate, stretch and concede points with one another.”

Yanklowitz’s book also discusses his own theories about the threefold nature of inspiration as well as a personal recollection of an inspiring encounter while on a humanitarian missions overseas.

“What I remember is that this woman, Margarita, was so passionate in doing all she could to improve the lives of the people in her village,” Yanklowitz recalled. “She didn’t care that it was a difficult proposition to train people to new attitudes of thinking, or that it was an uphill climb. Rather, every day she brought positive and fresh thinking that she thought could benefit the community.”

His approach to writing and researching the book was simple yet thorough. Writing each chapter one at a time, he began by reading numerous commentaries on each section before seeking additional guidance from his “favorite stack of philosophers,” such as Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

His goal was not to create historiographical documents, but to explore and share the text’s practical advice and intellectual legacy, as well as to interrogate some facets of contemporary American life.

“The popular archetype of the American as the loner who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to build an enormous house or buy a big truck or eat the biggest steak is a convenient fiction but a fiction nonetheless,” Yanklowitz said. “Those who think that the Lone Ranger worked by himself conveniently forget the character of Tonto. One of the greatest pieces of advice found in Pirkei Avot is the teaching that asks, ‘Who is wise? One who learns from every person.’

“Wisdom can come from anywhere, but often we are too stubborn or too condescending towards voices that we think don’t match our worldview or our politics or our religious certainty. The sages tell us to step back and move away from our comfort zone. Don’t dismiss anyone because of how they look or where they came from or what their educational level is.

“If someone has a good idea, or a piece of wisdom, listen to what this person has to say. You never know, it might change your life.”

The book is currently available for purchase online and will also be for sale on the Aug. 6 book launch at Temple Chai. JN