Rabbi Elazar of Modiin said: one who desecrates sacred things, and one who despises the festivals, and one who shames his fellow in public, and one who nullifies the covenant of our father Abraham, and one who attributes meaning to the Torah contrary to normative law, even though he has to his credit Torah and good deeds, he has no share in the world to come.
Dedication to Torah learning and expressions of good character are the two main themes emphasized throughout Pirkei Avot. In this Mishnah, Rabbi Elazar of Modiin cautions that even someone who embodies these two values, can still lose his share in the world to come, if he commits one of the five transgressions listed above. What is it about these behaviors that warrants such a harsh consequence?
Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka pinpoints the inability to value the sacred as the unifying theme that explains the seriousness of these transgressions. Judaism is not just about Torah and deeds but requires sanctification. “There is the specialness of sacred things,” he writes, “things which have been set aside for hallowed purposes, which may seem from the external view to be the same as any other things, but because they have been relegated for sacred purposes, assume a sanctity of their own.” The inability to recognize that objects (“desecrates sacred things”), time (“despises the festivals”), human beings (“shames his fellow”), the Jewish nation (“nullifies the covenant”), and tradition (“attributes meaning to the Torah contrary to normative law”) can be sanctified and sacred, in essence denies one of the most important values underlying the Torah.
Providing a historical approach, Rabbi Berel Wein suggests that Rabbi Elazar was responding to the spiritual challenges of his time. Living in the first half of the second century CE, there were several threats to the classical rabbinic teachings, including assimilationist Jews who wanted to undermine the rabbis of the Mishnah by adopting pagan Roman culture, as well as the nascent Christian religion that had not completely separated from Jewish society. The practices Rabbi Elazar identifies are ones that stand at the threshold of religious Jewish identity, such as the Jewish calendar and keeping to the holy festivals, circumcision, and the traditional way of interpreting Torah law. This active abrogation of Jewish community and identity, particularly when traditional distinctiveness was under threat, warrants removal from the next world.
A hundred years or so earlier, Philo identified a group of Jews in Alexandria known to historians as “radical allegorizers.” These Jews assumed that once the spiritual meaning of a law was recognized and fulfilled, there was no longer a need to follow the particular details of the actual ritual. Philo points to circumcision, and observance of Shabbat and the holidays, as laws that these allegorizers tended to spiritualize, and not follow through with action. Philo critiques their approach, both because the law requires deed and because these laws are essential for creating Jewish identity and community.
It is perhaps noteworthy that Rabbi Elazar points to some of the same rituals that Philo identifies as the shortcomings of the radical allegorizers. There is no doubt, as Rabbi Dr. Bulka noted, that Judaism requires sanctification. Yet, holiness and sacredness are actualized through the performance of mitzvot. Values devoid of deed have little value.
While not addressing this Mishnah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks accentuates the fundamental importance of ritual as it relates to the main themes we have identified in this essay. “Ritual is the poetry of deed, the choreography of faith,” providing the framework for spirituality and sacredness. It is also important for building Jewish community, as “Ritual turns us from lonely individuals into members of the people of the covenant.” Finally, it is essential for Jewish continuity and national identity because “Rituals are how civilisations preserve their memory, keeping faith with those who came before us and handing on their legacy to the future.”
Even if the impetus for Rabbi Elazar’s message is contextualized historically, the meaning and importance of his teaching is ever so relevant. We need to preserve our collective religious identity through a strong community and meaningful rituals, while also augmenting our Torah learning and good deeds with an infusion of holiness and a reverence for the sacred.