When Acher (Elisha b. Abuya) died, they said [in heaven], “We cannot judge him (i.e., consign him to punishment in Gehenna) and we cannot bring him into the World to Come. We cannot judge him because he engaged in Torah study and we cannot bring him into the World to Come because he sinned.” R. Meir said, “It would be better to judge him [and punish him accordingly] so he will [then] enter the World to Come. When I die, I will raise smoke from his grave.” When R. Meir died, a pillar of smoke rose from Acher’s grave.
R. Yochanan said, “Is it a mighty deed to burn his teacher? There was one among us—can we not save him? If I take him by the hand, who will take him from me?” R. Yochanan said, “When I die, I will extinguish the smoke from his grave.” When R. Yochanan died, the pillar of smoke rising from Acher’s grave ceased. A certain speaker [at R. Yochanan’s funeral] began his eulogy for [R. Yochanan], “Even the watchman at the entrance [of Gehenna] did not stand before you, our teacher.”
In TMT #104, we met Elisha b. Abuya. In rabbinic literary tradition, Elisha came to be the quintessential heretic or apostate. When and how Elisha came to be viewed as a heretic or apostate is an interesting question, particularly because we lack any historical data to support this view of Elisha’s life. However, the historicity (or lack of same) of Elisha’s heresy is not a question we will address here. Rather, we follow Sages’ story of what happened after his death and what that story reveals.
Heresy is defined as beliefs that controvert the established beliefs of a religious organization or authority; apostasy is the renunciation or criticism of established religious beliefs.
The Rabbis held that after one dies, they face judgment by a heavenly tribunal that weighs their good deeds against their bad deeds. If punishment is warranted, they are consigned to a stint in Gehenna (purgatory) to pay their debt, after which they enjoy their reward in the World to Come (olam ha-ba). For the heavenly court, Elisha is a confounding case: the merit he accrued during his life by studying and teaching Torah is so great that it mitigates against punishment in Gehenna, but his sin (which is not here unspecified—we are supposed to “know”) is so great that he cannot be brought to the World to Come. As a result, Elisha remains in a limbo that is both untenable for the rabbinic system of thought and intolerable for his student and advocate, R. Meir, who says that far preferable to limbo would be for Elisha b. Abuya to be punished in Gehenna so he could pay for his sins and then enter the World to Come. It is unclear why heaven could not arrive at the same conclusion: rather than refraining from punishing him because of his merit, and refraining from rewarding him due to his sin, punish him for his sin and reward him for his merit. Heaven’s inaction suggests that Elisha b. Abuya was unique: one whose Torah scholarship was so great and whose heresy was so complete.
In an effort to end his teacher’s limbo, R. Meir explains that when he dies, he will cause smoke to rise up from Elisha’s grave as a signal for those in this world to see that his advocacy in heaven on behalf of Elisha—that Elisha be punished and then sent to the World to Come—had succeeded.
The process begun by R. Meir is completed by R. Yochanan. Elisha b. Abuya’s limbo—marking his ostracism from the Jewish community in general, and the rabbinic community in particular—is ended when R. Yochanan forcefully escorts him from Gehenna, presumably to his reward in the World to Come.
More than a century later, R. Meir’s rescue of Elisha b. Abuya from limbo is completed when R. Yochanan escorts him from Gehenna to his reward in the World to Come. Observing that smoke continues to rise from Elisha’s grave, R. Yochanan observes that all Meir has accomplished thus far is to “burn his teacher.” His criticism is not truly directed at R. Meir; it is intended for the community of rabbis, of whom Elisha b. Abuya was part, who failed to “save” him in life, and now fail to advocate for him in death. Therefore, R. Yochanan promises, when he dies, he will complete the task of escorting Elisha to his reward in the World to Come.
After R. Yochanan dies, the pillar of smoke ceases, signaling his success in securing Elisha’s release from Gehenna to the World to Come. This inspires R. Yochanan’s eulogizer to note that even the guard at the entrance to Gehenna could not prevent the powerful sage from escorting Elisha b. Abuya out.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Just as divine reward and punishment run through the Bible (see, for example, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) so, too, Gehenna and the World to Come, classic elements of rabbinic theology, bespeak heavenly punishment and reward, respectively, after death. What questions and concerns do the presumption of Gehenna and the World to Come answer? Do you believe there is judgment, purgatory, and heavenly reward after life?
- Most people are a combination of positive and negative traits, good and bad deeds. Some might consider a person righteous while others might condemn the same person as evil. R. Meir is convinced that Elisha’s goodness outweighs his sin and advocates on his behalf. What does this story teach about finding the good in people? Do you look for the good in people even when it may be challenging to find?
- R. Yochanan focuses on the community’s responsibility for Elisha. What does his viewpoint suggest about the role a community should play in a person’s life?