Both form and content support and encourage the observance and the study of rabbinic Torah traditions. On the one hand, the chain of transmission offers a meta-legal, historical justification for the host of extra-biblical Torah traditions practised by the rabbinic community. Avot does not ground the halakhah on internal, legal considerations, but rather derives rabbinic authority from a creative historical reconstruction of the history of the Torah traditions. On the other hand, the contents of Avot offer an alternative justification for the observance and study of Torah that focuses on the theological realm. The theological message of Avot offers a vision of a God who, having granted the Torah on Mt. Sinai, cherishes and rewards the observance and study of the Torah of the rabbis. Thus the theological content posits the acceptance of the chain of transmissions’s claim and then, like the chain, supports the extra-biblical rabbinic traditions with a non-legal argument. While the form establishes the meta-legal foundations for rabbinic authority, the content articulates the theological ramifications of submission to rabbinic rule.

Amram Tropper, Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 50.

…concerning the scope of the biblical ban on intermarriage, close analysis of the sources indicates greater uniformity on this matter than is generally supposed. The tannaim do not generally hold that the Bible contains a universal ban on intermarriage. The attribution of such an idea to an important second-century tanna is the invention of the redactional layer of the Babylonian Talmud. The rabbis understand the Bible to contain only a partial ban on intermarriage (i.e., only certain nations are prohibited). Second, concerning the rationale for the Bible’s partial ban on intermarriage, rabbinic sources of all stripes – early, late, Palestinan, and Babylonian – attribute this ban to the moral-religious danger that such a union poses for the Israelite spouse. For the rabbis, the rationale for the prohibition of intermarriage is neither ritual nor genealogical defilement of Israelites. Nor do we find any echo of the Pauline and early Christian notion of carnal defilement.

Christine E. Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 145-146.

…close analysis of Palestinian sources reveals that Palestinian rabbis read the biblical record very differently from the way in which it was read by some Jewish groups in the Second Temple and early Christian periods. Paul and later Christian sources join Ezra, Jubilees, and other Second Temple sources in constructing a universal prohibition of mixed marriages on biblical authority. In Second Temple sources, the consecration of Abraham and his seed to God entailed the permanent separation of that seed from the seed of Gentiles. According to Jubilees, the prohibition against the intermingling of these distinct seeds may be found in the Torah (Lev. 18:21, 20:3), and punishment for its violation is death. This prohibition and its punishment is understood to stand behind Phineas’ zealous execution of Zimri – the former being hailed as a hero in Second Temple sources – and to motivate Malachi 2:11, as well as Ezra’s dissolution of and interdict against mixed marriages. For his part, Paul denounces mixed marriages on the basis of the general prohibition against conjoining the holy and the impure.
By contrast, Palestinian rabbis maintain that biblical prohibitions of intermarriage (Dt 7 and 23) are partial only. The Torah contains no universal prohibition of intermarriage, and efforts to identify a biblical source for such a prohibition are severely suppressed (see the rabbis’ reaction to interpretations of Lev 18:21). This is not to say that the Palestinian rabbis were immune to concerns about such unions. Like their Second Temple predecessors, the rabbis condemned interethnic sexual relations. Nevertheless, the prohibition of such unions is understood to be rabbinic only (whether the eighteen decrees of Hillel and Shammai, a ruling of the Hasmonean court, or an even older authority). The Palestinian rabbis do not consider sexual union with a Gentile to be a capital crime, and although the Mishnah acknowledges the right of zealots like Phineas to deliver summary justice, Palestinian amoraim clearly disapprove of such zeal and seek to limit its power.

Christine E. Hayes, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 157-158.

Every Jewish home should have a מהרי”ל. What does it mean to have a מהרי”ל? It means ספר מנהגים. It’s also good to have the שו”ת, but it’s important to have the ספר מנהגים. A Jewish home without a מהרי”ל is like I don’t know, but you should have one…, because מהרי”ל is quoted like on every page…. If you learn halakhah בעיון, the מהרי”ל is always quoted and it’s good to see the מהרי”ל inside….

Rabbi Baruch Simon, “Fasting of the First-Born, Part I” YUTorah.org (2 April 2006) <http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/714458/Rabbi_Baruch_Simon/Fasting_of_the_first_born_Part_1-_04-02-06>

It’s fashionable to look at Passover as a universal idea. This makes sense; after all, how much more universal can you get than the theme of human freedom? Also, it’s a lot easier these days to be outer-directed and feel outrage at injustice. Thanks to the Internet, millions can now watch YouTube clips of people being oppressed in the Sudan or demonstrating in the Middle East.

David Suissa, “Liberation,” Jewish Journal (6-12 April 2012), 6.

The Jews, while maintaining their separateness, were open to the spiritual currents and movements of the times. They drew into their own civilization what appealed to them among the ideas and institutions of the world around them, striving for a synthesis between the indigenous and the extraneous in religious thought – both in theology and in philosophy – and, to some extent, in social organization. This was effected by interpretation. For this reason, it is important to see this activity clearly. Its task was two-fold. Its principal object was to explain the tenets of biblical religious culture to each generation in order to give the life of the community and the individual member guidance and direction, and to strengthen their faith in the existence and absolute, simple unity of God, his revelation in history through the Torah, his promise of the kingdom of God on earth and the final redemption at the end of days through the Messiah, son of David. The second objective was the defence of these concepts against Muslims and Christians in so far as these two daughter-religions claimed to have superseded Judaism.

Erwin I. J. Rosenthal, “The Study of the Bible in Medieval Judaism,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, Vol. 2, ed. G.W.H. Lampe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 254.

What we have to realize is that, for the ancient exegetes, sexual relations with a pagan woman, outside marriage or within it, were associated with the risk of idolatry. The Mishnaic threat, ‘He who has sexual intercourse with an Aramean woman, zealots (v.l. the Zealots) shall fall upon him’ (m. Sanh. 9:6) is linked in interpretative tradition with Lev. 18:21. The Aramean woman seems to be the prototype of the seductress and the whore: ‘Do not sit on the bed of an Aramean woman’ – exhorts the Talmud (b. Ber. 8b; b. Pes. 112b). And the mention of zealot intervention is a reminder of the biblical story of Israelite misbehaviour recorded in Num. 25, the whoring after the Moabite women, and of the outraged Pinhas’s ‘zealous’ act when he slew with a single blow the Jewish notable Zimri and his paramour Cozbi caught in flagrante delictu (Num. 25:7-9, 14-15). It should also be recalled that according to the midrashic version of Numbers 25, the Moabite women used sex as a means to promote idolatry. They inebriated their Israelite lovers with the strong Ammonite wine and, when they were aroused, each took out of her bosom a little statue of Baal Peor and asked the man to worship it. If he protested that idolatry was not the purpose of his visit, she explained that, to worship Baal Peor, all he needed to do was to undress. This equivocal act of worship – which, in the circumstances, did not seem inordinately out of place – was however not the end to it. ‘Renounce the Torah of Moses – she said – and then I will give myself to you.’

Gaza Vermes, “Leviticus 18:21 in Ancient Jewish Bible Exegesis” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob J. Petuchowski & Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University; Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1981), 116.

One of the successes of literary-critical scholarship on the midrashic literature has been the determination of a plausible relative chronology of the documents, based strictly on internal literary criteria (e.g., use of Hebrew vs. Palestinian Aramaic; amount of Greek and Latin employed; nature and frequency of attributions; dependence on, or literary affinity with other documents). Documents deemed to be earlier bear stylistic affinities with the Palestinian Talmud, use a fair amount of Galilean Aramaic and Greek and tend to attribute materials to a variety of Palestinian Amoraim mentioned in the Palestinian Talmud. Documents deemed to be later are mostly in Hebrew, use little Aramaic and Greek, and contain fewer attributions (many of which are suspect).

Richard S. Sarason, “Toward a New Agendum for the Study of Rabbinic Midrashic Literature,” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob J. Petuchowski & Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University; Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1981), 59, n. 12.

While generalizations about ‘rabbinic theology’ and ‘the rabbinic mind’ can be useful as gross characterizations and for heuristic purposes, they can also be misleading precisely because they are unrefined. It is far too common to speak of the ‘sea of Talmud (and, by extension, Midrash) and, since the same exegetical and aggadic traditions appear in many documents, to glean illustrations and prooftexts from a variety of documents across the board without regard to their chronology or peculiar literary characteristics and integrity. The anthological character of this literature as a whole may easily cause us to overlook evidences of redactional-editorial activity in shaping, recasting, or restyling materials to fit their literary context in a particular document. But once we recognize such activity and take into account the distinct literary characteristics of individual documents, we simply cannot treat this complex literature as a single fabric.

Richard S. Sarason, “Toward a New Agendum for the Study of Rabbinic Midrashic Literature,” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob J. Petuchowski & Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University; Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1981), 58.

In the case of Boaz and Ruth the evil yetzer seemed to appear within a sexual context. This list in Sifre Deut., however, shows that the picture is more complicated. The evil yetzer draws one to all possible sins: it draws Boaz to intercourse just as it draws David to murder, and Abraham and Elisha to theft. Other Tannaitic sources clearly confirm this conclusion: the yetzer appears in various contexts in Tannaitic literature, none of which (except this homily about Boaz) is sexual in nature. It appears as creating doubleness in one’s heart, thus preventing the singleness-of-heart needed for religious worship (mBer. 9:5; Sifra Shemini 8); It is presented as the source of anger (t. B.Q. 9:31) or even as anger itself (mAvot 4:1); It prevents men from studying Torah (Sifre Num. 119) and from observing the commandments (Sifre Deut. 43).

Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “Sexualising the Evil Inclination: Rabbinic ‘Yetzer’ and Modern Scholarship,” Journal of Jewish Studies 60, No. 2 (Autumn 2009), 267