The Ordeal of a Skeptic

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

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. …

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