J-BOM stands for Jewish Book of the Month Club and is a term coined by young MJ blogger Yahnatan Lasko for a movement of bloggers and readers working through great Jewish books together. The April selection is Visions of the Fathers by Abraham Twerski. I have suggested that busy people start with an abbreviated reading of Twerski. The readings for the first part of April include: Introduction, 1:1, 1:2, 1:6, 1:10, 1:11, 1:12, and 1:14.
The May selection will be The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendehlson.
The June selection will be As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg.
The July selection will be Chaim Potok’s The Promise.
The August selection will be The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart.
Visions of the Fathers is a commentary on Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), a tractate of the Mishnah dealing with ethics and wisdom from the Tannaitic sages. The commentary is by Abraham Twerski, a Hasidic rabbi and a psychiatrist whose specialty is substance abuse and addiction.
Ethical wisdom is the missing ingredient in the religion of many Jews and Christians. Many people think of ethics in some limited sense, such as principles of business which will keep you out of trouble but which can be broken as long as you can get away with it.
Properly speaking, ethical wisdom brings us down to the core issues of motivations, beliefs, consequences, and glorification of God rather than self.
Twerski says in his introduction:
We come into this world with many physical drives inherent within us. It is a major task to exert restraint on our natural inclinations, and furthermore to transform them and direct their energies into the proper channels.
Pirkei Avot is like the Proverbs of the Mishnah. For the most part, its sayings reflect deep reflection on scriptural and practical ideas of holiness in living out God’s commands.
It is possible to disagree with the sages. Pirkei Avot is not a sacred text in our community. It is a traditional text.
Twerski’s text uses terms that may be unfamiliar to some readers. I will define two very quickly as they recur again and again.
Chassidus refers to Hasidic teaching. It includes kabbalah, speculation on the levels of divine glory and how to perceive God’s glory in mystical rapture. It also includes much ethical teaching. Chassidus is a form of Jewish teaching dealing with practical and spiritual matters primarily. In many ways it was a reaction to a Judaism which had become too intellectual, too philosophical.
Mussar is a biblical word meaning discipline. It refers to a movement and body of literature about ethics and godly living which was also a reaction to an overly intellectual Judaism.
In coming posts we will review some of the ethical and spiritual highlights of both Pirkei Avot and Twerski’s commentary. By way of review, let me simply say that Twerski’s words are worthy of a slow and careful reading and rereading. I should think that Visions of the Fathers would be an annual choice for J-BOM.