Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

June 02, 2006

Elisha ben Abuya VI

We now move on to the second and somewhat more complex component of the Babylonian EbA narrative. As before, all translations (unless indicated otherwise) are my own.

כי נח נפשיה דאחר אמרי לא מידן לידייניה ולא לעלמא דאתי ליתי לא מידן לידייניה משום דעסק באורייתא ולא לעלמא דאתי ליתי משום דחטא אמר ר"מ מוטב דלידייניה וליתי לעלמא דאתי מתי אמות ואעלה עשן מקברו כי נח נפשיה דרבי מאיר סליק קוטרא מקבריה דאחר אמר רבי יוחנן גבורתא למיקלא רביה חד הוה ביננא ולא מצינן לאצוליה אי נקטיה ביד מאן מרמי ליה מאן אמר מתי אמות ואכבה עשן מקברו כי נח נפשיה דרבי יוחנן פסק קוטרא מקבריה דאחר פתח עליה ההוא ספדנא אפילו שומר הפתח לא עמד לפניך רבינו
bHag 15b

When Akher died, they said, "He should not be judged and he should not be brought into the world [to come]. He should not be judged because he busied himself with Torah, but he should not be brought into the world [to come] because he sinned".
Rabbi Meir said, "It is better that he be punished and not brought into the world [to come]. When I die, I shall cause smoke to rise from his grave". When Rabbi Meir died, a column of smoke ascended from the grave of Akher.
Rabbi Yohanan said, "Is it a great deed to burn one's master? One who was amongst us, and we are not able to save him? If I take him by the hand, who will tear him away from me? Who?" He said, "When I die, I will extinguish the smoke from his grave". When Rabbi Yohanan died, the column of smoke departed from the grave of Akher. The eulogiser [of Rabbi Yohanan] commenced [his discourse] concerning him, "Even the guardian of the gate would not have stood before you, Our Rabbi".

From the sequence of events, it would seem that "they" in the first section refers to the heavenly court. Condemned to a form of eternal limbo, EbA is neither to be punished for his sins, nor rewarded for his good deeds. In the Palestinian version we saw how EbA was punished automatically and the column of smoke, a symbol of that punishment, was removed by Rabbi Meir. In the Babylonian version we see how Rabbi Meir, after his own death, instigates EbA's punishment himself. One can assume that this is simply in order that EbA may, later on, enter the world to come.

Rabbi Yohanan has a different approach, and that is to bring EbA into the world to come with him. He succeeds in negating the punishment and, from the words of his eulogiser, we can assume that he also succeeded in bringing EbA into the world to come. The reference to the guardian of the gate, so far as that is concerned, could be either a reference to the gate of Paradise or the gate of Hell, although the latter probably makes more sense in context. It is curious, not only that Rabbi Yohanan is fulfilling the role of redeemer and Rabbi Meir of accuser, but that Rabbi Yohanan's statement is the first indication within the Babylonian story that Rabbi Meir was EbA's disciple. As we shall soon see, the Babylonian Talmud is markedly more reserved about acknowledging the validity of EbA's teachings.

בתו של אחר אתיא לקמיה דרבי אמרה ליה רבי פרנסני אמר לה בת מי את אמרה לו בתו של אחר אני אמר לה עדיין יש מזרעו בעולם והא כתיב לא נין לו ולא נכד בעמו ואין שריד במגוריו אמרה לו זכור לתורתו ואל תזכור מעשיו מיד ירדה אש וסכסכה ספסלו של רבי בכה ואמר רבי ומה למתגנין בה כך למשתבחין בה על אחת כמה וכמה
bHag 15b

Akher's daughter came before Rebbe [Yehuda HaNasi]. She said to him, "Rebbe, support me".
He said to her, "Whose daughter are you?"
She said to him, "Akher's daughter".
I [ie: he] said to her, "Is there yet of his seed in the world? Behold, it says, 'He has no seed or breed among his people, no survivor where he once lived' (Job 18:19, acc. to JPS)".
She said to him, "Remember his Torah and do not remember his actions!"
Immediately, a fire descended and singed Rebbe's bench. Rebbe cried and said, "And what [a thing] for those who dishonour her [ie: Torah]! How much more so for those who respect her!"

Once more, there are some interesting differences between this version of the story and the one in the Palestinian Talmud. There, we were encountering EbA's daughters, while here it is a sole girl. There it was but their admonition that won them Rebbe's respect but here we see a repeat of the fire motif where, due to the girl's tremendous piety, heaven itself attempts to demonstrate the validity of her suggestion. While the Palestinian version was strong enough to seal the narrative, our version here is merely being used as a segue to a broader discussion about the viability of learning from a sinner.

ור"מ היכי גמר תורה מפומיה דאחר והאמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן מאי דכתיב כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקשו מפיהו כי מלאך ה' צבאות הוא אם דומה הרב למלאך ה' צבאות יבקשו תורה מפיהו ואם לאו אל יבקשו תורה מפיהו אמר ר"ל ר"מ קרא אשכח ודרש הט אזנך ושמע דברי חכמים ולבך תשית לדעתי לדעתם לא נאמר אלא לדעתי רב חנינא אמר מהכא שמעי בת וראי והטי אזנך ושכחי עמך ובית אביך קשו קראי אהדדי לא קשיא הא בגדול הא בקטן כי אתא רב דימי אמר אמרי במערבא ר"מ אכל תחלא ושדא שיחלא לברא
bHag 15b

As for Rabbi Meir, how could he learn Torah from Akher's mouth? Did not Rabba bar bar Hana say in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, "Why does it say, 'For the lips of a priest guard knowledge, and Torah is sought from his mouth; For he is the angel of the Lord of Hosts' (Mal 2:7)? If the master is like the angel of the Lord of Hosts, Torah may be sought from his mouth. But if he is not, one must not seek Torah from his mouth!"
Reish Laqish said, "Rabbi Meir found a verse and expounded it: 'Incline your ear and hear the words of the sages, and pay attention to my wisdom' (Pr 22:17). It does not say 'to their wisdom', but 'to my wisdom'."
Rav Hanina said, "From here: 'Listen, daughter, and look. Incline your ear; and forget your people and the house of your father' (Ps 45:11)."
(These verses contradict each other! There is no contradiction: [one speaks of] an adult, [the other speaks of] a child.)
Rav Dimi came along and said, "They say in the west [ie: in Palestine], 'Rabbi Meir ate a partially ripe date and he threw the skin away' ".

We commenced this section with a principle learned from Rabbi Yohanan, that if one is not sufficiently like the angel of the Lord, one is also not a fitting teacher for Torah. This would seem to be a clear indictment of Rabbi Meir who, we are now reminded, learned Torah from EbA. What follows, however, are three attempts to salvage Rabbi Meir's reputation. In the process, they also serve to legitimise EbA's teachings. The message of each of these expositions is effectively the same. Rabbi Meir indicates that the Torah taught by EbA was still the Torah of God, even if EbA himself was an unworthy vessel for such wisdom. Rav Hanina stresses a focus on the teachings and a lack of concern for the man's lineage and personal history. Rav Dimi effectively expresses both notions again with the metaphor of a partially ripe fig. While the contents are still edible, the exterior is only worthy of being thrown in the street.

This is a fairly harsh indictment of the man himself, but it is one which is true to form. It adequately represents the manner in which the Talmud perceived him but, from the obvious care and deliberation that went into the Talmud's story (as shall become evident shortly), we can read sufficiently between the lines to detect the extent to which the man's teachings were truly cherished.

דרש רבא מאי דכתיב אל גנת אגוז ירדתי לראות באבי הנחל למה נמשלו ת"ח לאגוז לומר לך מה אגוז זה אע"פ שמלוכלך בטיט ובצואה אין מה שבתוכו נמאס אף ת"ח אע"פ שסרח אין תורתו נמאסת
bHag 15b

Rava expounded, "Why does it say, 'I went down to the nut grove to see the budding of the vale [to see if the vines had blossomed, if the pomegranates were in bloom]' (SoS 6:11, acc. to JPS)? To what end is a sage compared to a nut? It is to teach you that, just as with a nut, if it is soiled with mud and with excrement, its contents are not filthy; so too a sage, even if he spoiled [ie: sinned], his Torah is not filthy".

אשכחיה רבה בר שילא לאליהו א"ל מאי קא עביד הקב"ה א"ל קאמר שמעתא מפומייהו דכולהו רבנן ומפומיה דר"מ לא קאמר א"ל אמאי משום דקא גמר שמעתא מפומיה דאחר א"ל אמאי ר"מ רמון מצא תוכו אכל קליפתו זרק א"ל השתא קאמר מאיר בני אומר בזמן שאדם מצטער שכינה מה לשון אומרת קלני מראשי קלני מזרועי אם כך הקב"ה מצטער על דמן של רשעים ק"ו על דמן של צדיקים שנשפך
bHag 15b

Raba bar Sheila came across Elijah. He said to him, "What is the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing?"
He said to him, "He recites traditions from the mouths of all of the Rabbis, but He does not recite from the mouth of Rabbi Meir".
He said to him, "Why?"
"Because he learned traditions from the mouth of Akher".
He said to him, "Why? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, he ate the interior, [and] he threw away the husk".
He said to him, "Now He says, 'Meir, my son, says, 'At a time when a man is aggrieved, what terminology does the Shekhina employ [lit. 'what language does the S.. say']? 'I am pained in my head, I am pained in my arm'. If the Holy One, Blessed be He, can be so aggrieved over the blood of the wicked, how much more so over the blood of the righteous which is spilled!' ' ".

This story concludes the Babylonian Talmud's version of the narrative. Raba bar Sheila, in encountering Elijah, is upset to find that God himself has dismissed the teachings of EbA - to the extent that he will not even justify the teachings of Rabbi Meir. After presenting the same defence that we heard before (in strikingly similar terminology to that of Rav Dimi), God acquiesces and Elijah relates this fact. We are informed of it by hearing a tradition in Rabbi Meir's name (taken from mSan 6:5) being recited by God. The tradition in question is not necessarily attributable to EbA's influence, but its usage here is deliberate. As it speaks of the pain that God feels even over the death of the wicked, we are reminded of EbA's death and the pain felt by the sages who respected him enough that it was necessary for them to legitimise his teachings so.

This story has a "chiastic" structure. This means that, like the shape of the Greek letter χ (chi), the first part of the story corresponds to the last, the second to the second-last, and so on. A schematic of the Babylonian Talmudic narrative is as follows:

[I] EbA rejected by God and angel (Metatron)
[II] Sins of EbA (with prostitute)
[III] Rabbi Meir learns Torah from EbA:
3 expositions
[IV] God rejects EbA (13 synagogues); EbA murders child (13th synagogue)
[V] 3 narratives:
EbA's death (neither judged nor rewarded)
EbA's punishment (Rabbi Meir)
EbA's reward (Rabbi Yohanan)
[IV'] God accepts EbA, bringing life to a child (EbA's daughter)
[III'] Defence of Rabbi Meir learning Torah from EbA:
3 expositions
[II'] Defense of EbA's Torah (Rava)
[I'] EbA accepted by God and angel (Elijah)

(I am indebted to Rubenstein for his observation of this phenomenon; J.L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1999), 69)

It is impossible to believe that the authors of the Babylonian Talmud cared little for EbA. Despite their display of ambivalence - or, at the worst, open antagonism - the care and deliberation that went into forming their narrative belies these emotions. While not always referred to by his real name, EbA (aka Akher) is known intimately by the protagonists of our stories. We have seen how his teachings (both halakhic and homiletic) are preserved by the literature, and even how he himself came to fulfil a key halakhic and homiletic role within the same.

Ultimately, EbA's personality is a complex one. He is neither good nor bad, wise nor foolish. As with all real people, EbA exhibits elements from different extremes. It is not up to us to either admire or reject him as a person; ours is to merely appreciate the intellectual honesty of a man who (even if wrong) acted upon what he truly believed, irrespective of the opinions of others. At the end of the day, it may have been that aspect of his personality that won him the respect that he deserved.


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