Wednesday, November 08, 2006

True hospitality (Avot 1:5)

יוסי בן יוחנן איש ירושלים אומר, יהי ביתך פתוח לרווחה, ויהיו עניים בני ביתך. ואל תרבה שיחה עם האישה--באשתו אמרו, קל וחומר באשת חברו; מכאן אמרו חכמים, כל המרבה שיחה עם האישה--גורם רעה לעצמו, ובטיל מדברי תורה, וסופו יירש גיהינם

Yose ben Yohanon from Jerusalem said, may your house be wide open [to visitors]. And may the poor be among the people of your house. And do not make too much conversation with your wife.

This is the first Mishnah in Avot that I would call troubling. The last clause I translated – to not make too much conversation with your wife [literally, “the woman”] – would strike many as sexist.

A traditional way of trying to explain this away is to say that the Mishnah refers to “idle chatter” and that it is actually saying that one should show respect for his wife by not overburdening her with idle chatter.

I am not convinced by this kind of apologetic explanation. Our Holy literature is full of troubling – or “problem” – texts. And one of the most pervasive troubling aspects comes from the fact that our Sages – for all their great wisdom – lived in a time when society held very different ideas about the role of women than we do now.

But, on the other hand, I would never say we should “throw away” or disregard a troubling text like this. It is part of our Holy literature. We should follow in the best tradition of our Sages by inquiring into it and trying to understand it . . . . and find the kernel of wisdom that truly does reside there amid the troubling material.

One way of doing that kind of inquiry is to notice the context in which the troubling text arises. In our Mishnah – as in most – there are three clauses (of which our troubling material is only the third). What is the subject implied by the first two clauses?

The first clause appears to clearly be about the importance of welcoming guests into your home. The second is about having a place for the poor in your home. That is, from the first two clauses, the Mishnah appears to be about hospitality in a profound way – the kind of hospitality that Avraham shows at the beginning of this coming Shabbat’s Parsha when he welcomes the three guests who appeared by the door of his tent in the heat of the day (Gen. 18:2). Avraham’s hospitality is one that extends far beyond merely being friendly all the way into tzedukah/צדקה (what Christians call charity). It’s the hospitality that a person of means shows to the unfortunate and the needy who are around that person.

The relevance of the troubling clause of our Mishnah may then have to do with helping us to understand the full dimension of what this profound hospitality is – what a truly open door means. It is not just about providing food or drink. It is also – as Avraham did – providing yourself. You should talk to the guests as well and not just spend your time talking to the existing members of your household (like, for example, your wife).

May you find a place in your day to provide a few minutes of conversation to one who really needs that bit of hospitality at this time.

[I did not, by the way, translate the whole Mishnah. You can find that here in Mishnah 5.]

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