One of the most compelling and puzzling figures in the Talmud’s cast of rabbinic characters is Elisha ben Avuyah. Like most sages of that era, Elisha is known to us only through the Talmud and its associated texts. Likely born around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, he lived in the Galilee, where Jewish spiritual and intellectual life reconstituted itself in the aftermath of that great national catastrophe—a crushing event that, along with others similarly dire, is commemorated annually by Jews in the liturgy and 25-hour fast of the Ninth of Av, which this year is marked on Sunday August 11.
The Talmud cites the opinions of Elisha only a handful of times. But the most salient fact of his career is that, at some point, he became a heretic and forsook Jewish practice, earning himself the epithet Aḥer—the Other. And yet the redactors of the Talmud, rather than writing Elisha out of the tradition, as they might easily have done, chose to preserve a record of both his actions and his teachings.
They did so, I would argue, as a means of addressing the theological questions raised by the immense suffering undergone by the Jewish people during his lifetime—a period when all seemed lost, both politically and spiritually. Elisha’s life, which began during the bloody Jewish uprising against the Romans that very soon led to the devastation of Jerusalem and the Temple, would unfold over a period of further persecution that climaxed some 65 years later with the crushing of the Bar Kokhba rebellion (on, the Mishnah asserts, again the Ninth of Av). That latter insurrection—ancient Israel’s final hope of regaining religious and political sovereignty—was suppressed by the emperor Hadrian with even greater ruthlessness than his predecessors had deployed against the great revolt of 67-70 CE.
The Talmud, which unsparingly attributes to Elisha a range of offenses, including collaboration with the Romans and murder, also gives various accounts of the reasons for, and nature of, his apostasy. At one point, for instance, it casts him as a kind of rabbinic Socrates, corrupting Jewish youth with corrosive ideas from the books of “Greek wisdom.” More specifically, however, it traces his heresy to two faith-shattering experiences.
The first involved an instance of Roman brutality: Elisha had witnessed a pig dragging through the dirt the tongue of a martyred rabbi renowned for his religious oratory. The experience radically undermined his belief that dedication to the Torah would by definition be rewarded. “This,” he exclaimed in despair, “is the tongue that used to give forth Torah perfectly? This is the tongue that was busy with Torah all its life? This is Torah, and this is its reward?”
At the time, many other rabbis must have been preoccupied by these and similar questions; no one articulated them so boldly.
The second episode, again touching on the inscrutability of divine justice, involved a direct assault on the veracity of Scripture itself. The Torah rarely guarantees a reward for the performance of a specific commandment. But there are two exceptions. A good and long life is explicitly guaranteed to one who fulfills the obligation to shoo away a mother bird before removing her eggs or her chicks from the nest (Deuteronomy 22:6), and also to one who fulfills the obligation to honor one’s parents (Exodus 20:11).
Elisha had witnessed a person walking away unharmed and unpunished after sinfully snatching eggs in the presence of the mother bird. As if that weren’t bad enough, he’d seen another person who, after properly retrieving the eggs at his father’s request, and thus fulfilling both commandments to the letter, died immediately. What happened to the good, long life promised to this person? Could God not be trusted to keep the promises made in His own revealed words?
The second incident, although seemingly unconnected to the Roman persecutions, should be similarly read against that backdrop. The commandment regulating the removal of eggs from a nest aims at minimizing the pain of a mother being separated from her young. In Elisha’s time, innocent Jewish children were being routinely murdered to satisfy the Romans’ bloodlust or feed their insatiable appetite for slaves. As the Talmud reports, Roman legionaries massacred countless children in the town of Beitar, where Bar Kokhba’s forces would make their valiant last stand. How, Elisha asks, could the same God who demands sensitivity toward roosting birds and their offspring exhibit such callousness toward Jewish mothers and children?
These irresolvable enigmas, explains the Talmud, are what eventually drove Elisha to his heresy. Yet even as the rabbis anathematize him, in meticulously preserving his experiences they also acknowledge the legitimacy of his doubts. For them, Elisha becomes a vehicle for exploring the agonizing conundrums they themselves are too honest to ignore but too pious to articulate—and evidently too reticent to rebut convincingly.
But that is not quite right. The Talmud does provide a rebuttal to Elisha—not in the words of the rabbis but in the living form of his contemporary, Rabbi Akiva.
The connection between the two rabbis is made clear in Tractate Ḥagigah, which states that four rabbinic colleagues sought as a group to penetrate the deepest mysteries—the secret “orchard” (pardes) of the Godhead. Of the four, one perished; one went insane; the third, Elisha, eventually lost his faith; Akiva alone emerged unscathed, going on to become the preeminent rabbi of his day and arguably the most celebrated and influential talmudic sage of all. Another link between the two colleagues and friends—for whom else would Akiva choose to accompany him on so intimate an experience?—was their common disciple, Rabbi Meir: the foremost scholar of the subsequent generation who, after Elisha’s apostasy, studied under Akiva’s tutelage while never breaking completely with his former master.
Acutely aware of the post-destruction Jewish plight, Akiva ardently supported Bar Kokhba and lived through the crushing disillusionment of his defeat. For providing rabbinic imprimatur to the rebellion, the Romans sentenced Akiva to an especially gruesome punishment: being flayed alive. His response to national catastrophe, the mirror image of Elisha’s, is similarly captured in two essential episodes.
The first occurs as Akiva and his students come upon the heart-rending spectacle of predatory foxes roaming on the ruins of the Temple Mount at the precise spot where the Holy of Holies once stood. His disciples weep; but Akiva, as if to compound their consternation, laughs. In explanation, he cites a pair of unrelated prophecies: one foretelling destruction, the other rejuvenation. The latter, he reasons, is contingent on the former. Now that the black prophecy of doom has come to pass, the joyous prophecy of salvation can be fulfilled.
The second episode occurs just before Akiva succumbs to the Romans’ harrowing punishment. Greeting the sunrise, he expresses gratitude for the gift of reciting the morning Sh’ma, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” More than signaling the start of a new day, the sun regulates the sacred time of Akiva’s spiritual world. He will not forgo his last opportunity to fulfill a commandment whose everlasting truths transcend the earthly pains of torture and mortality.
Akiva’s theological victory over the realities of human, and Jewish, suffering can be fully grasped only in contrast to Elisha’s defeat. Rather than formulating a rational answer to Elisha’s unanswerable questions, the Talmud offers instead an unmatched, and unfalsifiable, example of experiential faith and moral heroism. And that brings us in turn to one of the few teachings of Elisha preserved in rabbinic literature and cited in his own name rather than in the name of the “Other.” It is found in the tractate known as the Ethics of the Fathers:
Elisha ben Avuyah says, “One who learns as a child is compared with what? With ink written on new parchment. And one who learns as an elder is compared with what? With ink written on erased parchment.”
Most traditional commentators see this brief utterance as simply contrasting the suppleness of the youthful mind to the creeping forgetfulness of old age. Not so, Yom Tov Lipman Heller (1579-1654), author of a seminal commentary on the Mishnah, Tosafot Yom Tov, who focuses on Elisha’s puzzling contrast of “new” with “erased” as opposed to “new” with “old.” For Heller, what Elisha is addressing here is not the frailties that come with age but the maturation a person undergoes when the naïve confidence and clear-cut convictions of youth inevitably crumble in the wake of sobering experience:
Numerous thoughts and calculations having to do with worldly matters have already been engraved in [the elder person’s] mind. When he desires to remember words of Torah, he will have to erase all of those thoughts, and that is not easy to do well.
Heller’s understanding of the metaphor speaks as well to Elisha’s own despair as, unable to set aside or “erase” the horrors to which he had borne witness, he could no longer maintain the idealistic teachings of his youth. Indiscriminate death and national defeat had appeared to give the lie to the Torah of his school days, exposing the uncertainty of promises of reward, the apparent lack of divine providence, the predominance of suffering, the arbitrariness of the human condition. Such was the lesson of the tongue dragged in the dirt.
Akiva, reversing the terms of Elisha’s analogy, instead treated the collapsing world as a palimpsest, that is, a recycled parchment with a recent text superimposed on, but not wholly concealing, the traces of the text underneath: in his case, the underlying truths of the wholly pristine Torah with its unbreakable promise of justice, goodness, and recompense. Erasing the “worldly matters already engraved in his mind,” Akiva transformed the ravaging spectacle of the ruined Temple into the signal of imminent redemption.
Yom Tov Heller himself endured the full weight of Jewish misfortune: loss of children, imprisonment, exile, betrayal, and ultimately the devastation wrought by the Chmielnicki massacres that swept through Poland beginning in 1648. His poem responding to the catastrophe that engulfed his community captures in lurid detail what he lived through. Here are some of its tamer verses:
The blood of the sire and his young they did not cover; the daughters and women they raped.
They twisted the legs of infants, smashed their heads against walls, fouled their brains.
Holding in his hand the butcher’s knife for the slaughter, preparing one who was without fault or blemish,
They defiled the pure sanctuaries, the small temples where the scattered ones of Israel gather,
By killing them after hanging them alive from the ropes of candelabras and lamps.
To sustain the religious idealism of his own youth, Heller would have had to erase these torments repeatedly. A token of his own, perhaps momentary, failure appears in the same poem as he angrily addresses God: “You have become a plague against Your people/No illness or affliction has been spared them.” If only for an instant, traces of Elisha’s crisis of faith live on in Heller’s agonized verse.
As the annual observance of the Ninth of Av reminds us, much, too much, of Jewish history has been a continuum of Elishas, Akivas, and Yom Tov Hellers struggling to reconcile cruel reality with the divine promise contained in the paragraphs of the Sh’ma recited by Akiva with his dying breath:
If you obey My commandments, . . . I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your grain and wine and oil—and you shall eat your fill.
What, then, of Jews today who live in an age that has witnessed first the nadir of Jewish suffering and next the miraculous renewal of Jewish optimism and hope? Upon them falls the continual obligation, for the sake of all who come after, never to forget the former, and never to abandon the latter.