The Ordeal of a Skeptic

By Roshwald, Mordecai | Midstream, September-October 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Ordeal of a Skeptic

Roshwald, Mordecai, Midstream

Rabbi Elisha ben Avuya (or Abuya) is not a name that, outside the circle of Jews familiar with rabbinical studies, will meet with recognition. Yet he exemplifies an intriguing and moving case of a believer and highly respected member of a community and a coterie of devout scholars who lost his belief and turned away from traditional religious observance, thus estranging himself from his people and, naturally, incurring resentment from his former colleagues.

We have no distinct literary report concerning the life of our protagonist and the dramatic change in his belief and convictions. The picture can, however, be pieced together from fragments in the rabbinical literature. Even this is not too easy to do, since not all the pieces fit together, and it is possible to create different personalities out of them -- as indeed has been the case. Consequently, the present reconstruction cannot claim to present an authentic and historically true picture. Yet it seems to be the most plausible to me. It does convey the ordeal of a believer estranged from his spiritual foundations and social roots, which transcends any single actual occurrence, and it stands as a prototype of such a painful rift.

Rabbi Elisha ben Avuya -- that is to say, the son of Avuya -- lived in the first part of the second century CE. He was a tanna, an appellation given to Talmudic scholars who lived between 200 BCE and 200 CE. The tanna interpreted the holy scriptures, primarily the Pentateuch, in order to clarify and actually expand the legislative precepts controlling the lives of contemporary and future Jewry. Their work was finally codified in the Mishnah (the code of oral law put into writing ca. 215 CE). The names of the various tannaim (Hebrew plural), including that of Elisha ben Avuya, are mentioned in the Mishnah, and in subsequent rabbinical texts, whenever the opinion or judgment of a particular scholar is referred to. They -- and thus Elisha ben Avuya -- are also mentioned in various anecdotal stories dispersed in the Talmudic and Midrashic (homiletic) literature. There are also compilations of sayings and parables attributed to various sages, including some of Elisha's. It is out of this diverse and scattered material that the story of Elisha ben Avuya may be reconstructed.

Rabbi Elisha was one of the prominent tannaim, to judge by the references to his opinions and judgments, by his sayings, and not least, by the testimony of his disciples -- particularly Rabbi Meir, himself one of the most distinguished tannaim of the next generation. Following his rejection of Judaism, Rabbi Elisha came to be referred to not by his name but as Acher, that is to say, "another one," or "a different one," "a stranger" -- a derogatory appellation, conveying his estrangement and the width of the gap created by the scholar who had turned away from tradition and truth. Yet if this was harsh treatment, it is note-worthy that his opinions continued to be quoted. His apostasy did not retroactively nullify his contributions to the teaching and interpretation of the Law.

The period of Rabbi Elisha's life and activity is of primary significance. Indeed, had he been born in a happier time, he might not have become a stranger to his own people and milieu. The first half of the second century followed the national catastrophe of 70 CE, when, at the culmination of a long war (66-70 CE), Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans and the Temple destroyed. The horrific casualties and personal suffering were compounded by the destruction of the national-religious center and brutal repression. The national trauma must have been felt acutely by the generation of Rabbi Elisha.

As if this were not enough, there followed a series of Jewish revolts (115-117 CE) in various cities of the Roman Empire, which were crushed by the Romans. The last straw was the revolt by Bar Kochba in Judea (132-135 CE), awakening expectations of messianic delivery but cruelly subdued by the Emperor Hadrian.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Ordeal of a Skeptic


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?