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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Death of the Heretic — BT Chagigah 15b (part 2) — #105

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Heretic — BT Chagigah 15a, b (part 1) — #104

The Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: An incident concerning Acher [sobriquet for Elisha b. Abuya) who was riding a horse on shabbat as R. Meir walked behind in order to learn Torah from his mouth. [Elisha] said to [R. Meir], “Meir, turn back for I have calculated by the footsteps of my horse that the shabbat boundary is here.” [R. Meir] said to him, “You, too, turn back!” [Elisha] said to him, “Haven’t I already told you that I have heard from behind the partition, ‘Return, rebellious children (Jeremiah 3:14, 22)—except Acher.’” [R. Meir] grabbed hold of him and thrust him into a bet midrash (study house). [Elisha] said to a young child, “Tell me your verse.” [The child] said to him, “There is no peace for the wicked, says Adonai (Isaiah 48:22).” [R. Meir] brought him to another synagogue. [Elisha] said to a young child, “Tell me your verse.” [The child] said to him, “Even if you wash with niter and much soap, your iniquity remains a stain before Me (Jeremiah 2:22).” [R. Meir] brought him to another synagogue. [Elisha] said to a young child, “Tell me your verse.” [The child] said to him, “And you who are doomed to ruin, what do you accomplish by wearing crimson, by decking yourself in jewels of gold, by enlarging your eyes with kohl? You beautify yourself in vain: [Lovers despise you, they seek your life!] (Jeremiah 4:30) [R. Meir] brought [Elisha] to another synagogue until he had brought him into thirteen synagogues.

It is common fare for cultural and political groups to establish boundaries concerning what is appropriate in-group behavior or thinking by telling stories about those who transgress the norms. The classic Jewish example is Elisha b. Abuya, the teacher of R. Meir, who is said to have left the rabbinic circle and become a heretic or an apostate. Early rabbinic literature uses his name, but the Babylonian Talmud refers to him by the pejorative “Acher” (the Other, or Outsider). Explanations abound concerning why Elisha turned away from Judaism: he became an atheist; he became a gnostic; he was swayed by Greek philosophy—each highly speculative and without historical foundation. Tractate Chagigah spends a good deal of time telling stories about Elisha, but goes beyond excoriating him to ask: What about the Torah he taught? If the community rejects Elisha, must it turn its back on his Torah, as well? The stories about Elisha broach another serious question: Does Elisha’s sin wipe away the merit of his study of Torah and the portion in olam ha-ba he earned through study?

The Gemara preserves a highly symbolic and meticulously composed story about an interaction between R. Meir and his beloved teacher Elisha b. Abuya. One shabbat, Elisha is riding a horse in violation of a Torah commandment. What is more, he travels beyond the shabbat techum (travel limit of ~.6 mile from the city border), a violation of a rabbinic commandment. In a scene redolent with contradictions and irony, although Elisha has left the rabbinic circle and no longer adheres to halakhah, he is nonetheless keenly aware of its limits and warns R. Meir lest he violate them. Apparently, R. Meir is distracted by the Torah he is learning from the mouth of “Acher,” who still teaches his favorite student despite his own personal lack of faith and commitment.

When Elisha warns R. Meir to “turn back” and not transgress the physical shabbat boundary, R. Meir uses the same words metaphorically to implore his beloved teacher to spiritually “turn back” to Judaism. Elisha responds that he has already heard from beyond the Divine screen that separates heaven and earth that Jeremiah’s promise that Israel would return to God does not include him. R. Meir, unwilling to accept Elisha’s application of the verse from Jeremiah to himself, hauls Elisha into a nearby school where young children are studying. What follows is a long passage, from which I have excerpted the initial anecdotes, which follow the same pattern: Elisha asks a random child to recite the verse he is learning, which turns out to be prophetic for  him. This is called cledonism, a form of divination common in classical antiquity, that is based on chance events or encounters, including words uttered (in this case, verses). The passage recounts that R. Meir took Elisha to thirteen different schools, in each of which Elisha asks a random child what he is learning. The verses mentioned (Isaiah 48:22 and Jeremiah 2:22 and 4:30 above, and further on Psalm 50:16) are all understood to condemn Elisha as wicked and assert that there is no hope of his returning to the rabbinic fold or reconciling with God. In the final anecdote (not included above), the child mumbles and Elisha mishears the child’s recitation of Psalm 50:16. Rather than hearing V’la’rasha (“But to the wicked”), Elisha hears V’le-Elisha (“But to Elisha”), confirming for Elisha that there is no path back to God and the rabbinic community.

  1. How is it possible for Elisha, who rejects the theological premises of Judaism, to continue to teach Torah to his beloved student, R. Meir? How is it possible for R. Meir to accept Elisha’s teachings as legitimate Torah? Is the righteousness of the source the measure of wisdom’s value? Can a highly imperfect vessel convey wisdom? How should we think about and treat the art, music, inventions, and scientific research of people we deem morally repugnant? (Consider the music of Wagner and the research data of Nazi scientists.)
  2. Elisha considers himself beyond repentance. Do you think his statement that when Jeremiah proclaimed in God’s name, Return, rebellious children that an exception was made for him reflects Elisha’s emotional and spiritual state, Talmud’s way of saying that God has deemed Elisha beyond return, or the Rabbis’ judgment of Elisha? Does the way Elisha mishears Psalm 50:16 support one or another of these possible interpretations? 
  3. Is there anyone who is beyond repentance? If so, how would you know when to give up on a person? What is the danger of giving up on people? The context of the story of Elisha b. Abuya is the religious realm—it involves heresy or apostasy. Consider  prisoners convicted of violent crimes: Are people who commit acts of violence beyond redemption? Should we constrict prisons to sequester, punish, rehabilitate, or some combination?