Elisha ben Abuyah (Hebrew: אלישע בן אבויה) (spelled variously, including Elisha ben Avuya), also known as Acher (אחר meaning the "Other One" or "outcast"), was a rabbi and Jewish religious authority born in Jerusalem sometime before 70 C.E. When he adopted a worldview considered heretical by his fellow Tannaim, the rabbis of the Talmud refrained from relating teachings in his name and he was condemned for apostasy. Despite being viewed as a heretic by mainstream Judaism, Elisha ben Abuyah was a gifted scholar, renowned teacher at a Jewish academy, and authority in Jewish law.
The Tannaim were rabbinic sages in Judaism, who over a period of 130 years, presided over the formulation of the Mishnah. As experts in Jewish law, they were were instrumental in the transmission of the "Oral Law," which deeply enriched the theological and ethical life stream of Judaism. They represented excellence in biblical scholarship, exegesis and personal piety and consequently were highly respected by Jews of this period and later centuries. Although condemned by his fellow Tannaim, Elisha ben Abuyah was lauded as a great Jew by his disciple Rabbi Meir.
Little is known of Elisha's youth and of his activity as a teacher of Jewish Law. He was the son of a wealthy and well-respected citizen of Jerusalem, and was trained for the career of a scholar. The only saying of his recorded in the Mishnah is his praise of education: "Learning Torah as a child is like writing on fresh paper, but learning Torah in old age is like writing on paper that has been erased" (Avot 4:20). Other sayings attributed to Elisha indicate that he stressed mitzvot (good deeds) as equal in importance to education:
To whom may a man who has good deeds and has studied much Torah be compared? To a man who in building [lays] stones first [for a foundation] and then lays bricks [over them], so that however much water may collect at the side of the building, it will not wash away. Contrariwise, he who has no good deeds even though he has studied much Torah—to whom may he be compared? To a man who in building lays bricks first and then heaps stones over them, so that even if a little water collects, it at once undermines the structure.
Elisha was a student of Greek; as the Talmud expresses it, "Acher's tongue was never tired of singing Greek songs" (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah i. 9). The Talmud suggests that his study of Greek philosophy was one of the factors that led him to apostasy (Hagigah 15b). Wilhelm Bacher, in his analysis of Talmudic legends, wrote that the similes attributed to Elisha (including the ones cited above) show that he was a man of the world, acquainted with wine, horses, and architecture. He evidently had a reputation as an authority in questions of religious practice, since Mo'ed Katan 20a records one of his halakhic decisions—the only one in his name, although others may be recorded under the names of his students or different rabbis. The Babylonian Talmud asserts that Elisha, while a teacher in the beth midrash (academy), kept forbidden books hidden in his clothes.
Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, writing in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906), says that "it is almost impossible to derive from rabbinical sources a clear picture of his personality, and modern historians have differed greatly in their estimate of him. According to Grätz, he was a Karpotian Gnostic; according to Siegfried, a follower of Philo; according to Dubsch, a Christian; according to Smolenskin and Weiss, a victim of the inquisitor Akiba."
The Jerusalem Talmud is also the authority for the statement that Elisha played the part of an informer during the Hadrianic persecutions, when the Jews were ordered to violate the laws of the Torah. As evidence of this it is related that when the Jews were ordered to do work on Shabbat, they tried to perform it in a way which could be considered as not profaning the Sabbath. But Elisha betrayed the Pharisees to the Roman authorities. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, in the critical period following the rebellion of Bar Kokba, Elisha visited the schools and attempted to entice the students from the study of the Torah, in order to direct their energies to some more practical occupation; and it is to him, therefore, that the verse 'Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin' is to be applied. In connection with this the Biblical quotation is quite intelligible, as according to another haggadah (Shabbat 34b; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5:5) "flesh" here means children—spiritual children, pupils—whom Elisha killed with his mouth by luring them from the study of the Torah."
The harsh treatment he received from the Pharisees was due to his having deserted their ranks at such a critical time. Quite in harmony with this supposition are the other sins laid to his charge; namely, that he rode in an ostentatious manner through the streets of Jerusalem on a Day of Atonement which fell upon a Sabbath, and that he was bold enough to overstep the "teḥum" (the limits of the Sabbath-day journey). Both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds agree here, and cite this as proof that Elisha turned from Pharisaism to heresy. It was just such non-observance of customs that excited the anger of Akiva (Sotah 27b). The Jewish Encyclopedia writes that the mention of the "Holy of Holies" in this passage is not an anachronism, as Grätz thinks, for while it is true that Eliezer and Joshua were present as the geonim par excellence at Elisha's circumcision—which must, therefore, have occurred after the death of Johanan ben Zakkai (80)—it is also true that the "Holy of Holies" is likewise mentioned in connection with Rabbi Akiva (Makkot, end); indeed, the use of this expression is due to the fact that the Rabbis held holiness to be inherent in the place, not in the building (Yevamot 6b).
The same passage from the Jerusalem Talmud refers to Elisha as being alive when his pupil Rabbi Meir had become a renowned teacher. According to the assumption made above, he must have reached his seventieth year at that time. If Elisha were a Sadducee, the friendship constantly shown him by Rabbi Meïr could be understood. This friendship would have been impossible had Elisha been an apostate or a man of loose morals, as has been asserted. Sadducees and Pharisees, however, lived in friendly intercourse with one another (for example, Rabban Gamaliel with Sadducees; Eruvin 77b).
The Jewish Encyclopedia suggests that Elisha had become a Sadducee. It bases this on the fact that the Jerusalem Talmud mentions Elisha's betrayal of Pharisees. It suggests that the antipathy of Elisha was not directed against all forms of Jewish worship existing at that time, but only against Pharisaism, despite the fact the sages who redacted the Jerusalem Talmud were Pharisees and may have simply focused on the betrayal against their own community. It also suggests that one of the reasons given for Elisha's apostasy is characteristic of a Sadducee perspective: Elisha is said to have seen a child lose his life while fulfilling a law for the observance of which the Torah promised a "long life," whereas a man who broke the same law was not hurt in the least. This encounter, as well as the frightful sufferings of Jewish martyrs during the Hadrianic persecutions, led Elisha to the conclusion that there was no reward for virtue in this life, though the Pharisee sages interpreted this passage as referring to life and reward in the next world. Thus, the Jewish Encyclopedia suggests that Elisha was a Sadducee, since belief that reward and punishment must occur on Earth and disbelief in an afterlife are part of Sadducee philosophy. However, his abandonment of Jewish practice after his troubling encounters seems to indicate that, whatever his earlier philosophy, Elisha abandoned any form of Jewish religion.
In his book, The Sinner and the Amnesiac: The Rabbinic Invention of Elisha Ben Abuya and Eleazar Ben Arach (2000), Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein argues that rabbinic stories should be read as literature rather than as history:
They [the rabbis] construct stories that are then integrated into larger ideologically motivated literary units in such a way as to impart particular ideological messages. The sources do not necessarily relate the historical facts about the heroes but they do illustrate the cultural concerns that find expression in the stories told about them. ... All this leads to the realization that the significant unit for presentation is not the life of the sage; it is the stories about sages. These stories are not formulated in an attempt to tell the life of the sage. They are told because the sage, as part of the collective culture, has some bearing on the common cultural concerns. Various anecdotes are coupled into a larger story cycle.
Rabbinic Judaism was based on vigorous and often contentious debate over the meaning of the Torah and other sacred texts. One challenge facing the rabbis was to establish the degree of heterodoxy that was acceptable in debate. In this context, Elisha the heretic and Eleazar, who is said to have forgotten the Torah, represent two extremes in attitudes towards the Torah; actual rabbis and their arguments had to fit somewhere between these two limits.
One of the most striking references to Elisha is found in a legendary baraita about four rabbis of the Mishnaic period (first century CE) who visited the Orchard (that is, pardes or paradise) (Hebrew: פרדס orchard):
Four men entered paradise [pardes]—Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [that is, Elisha], and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace.
The Tosafot, medieval commentaries on the Talmud, say that the four sages "did not go up literally, but it appeared to them as if they went up." Ginzberg, on the other hand, writes that the journey to paradise "is to be taken literally and not allegorically"; "in a moment of ecstasy [Elisha] beheld the interior of heaven," but "he destroyed the plants of the heavenly garden."
The Talmud gives two different interpretations of this last phrase. The Babylonian Talmud says:
What is the meaning of "Acher destroyed the plants"? Of him scripture says: "Do not let your mouth make your flesh sin." What does this mean? Acher saw that Metatron happened to be granted authority to sit while he record the merits of Israel, and he said: "We have been taught that in heaven there is no sitting.... Perhaps there are—God forbid!—two supreme powers." They brought him to Metatron and they smote him with sixty bands of fire. They said to Metatron: "When you saw him, why did you not stand up before him?" Then authority was granted Metatron to erase the merits of Acher. Then a heavenly voice was heard: "'Repent, O backsliding children!' except for Acher."
Ginzberg comments that "the reference here to Metatron—a specifically Babylonian idea, which would probably be unknown to Palestinian rabbis even five hundred years after Elisha—robs the passage of all historical worth." Instead, he highlights the contrast between the accounts in the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, noting that the Jerusalem Talmud "makes no mention of Elisha's dualism; but it relates that in the critical period following the rebellion of Bar Kokba, Elisha visited the schools and attempted to entice the students from the study of the Torah, in order to direct their energies to some more practical occupation; and it is to him, therefore, that the verse 'Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin' is to be applied. In connection with this the Biblical quotation is quite intelligible, as according to another haggadah (Shabbat 34b; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 5:5) "flesh" here means children—spiritual children, pupils—whom Elisha killed with his mouth by luring them from the study of the Torah."
Others disagree with Ginzberg, suggesting that he failed to account for the regular travel of sages between Judea and Babylonia to collect and transmit scholarly teachings. Furthermore, scholar Hugh Odeberg has dated portions of the pseudepigraphal Third Book of Enoch, which discusses Metatron, to the first or second century C.E., before the redaction of both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds, and other scholars have found the concept of Metatron in texts older than 70 C.E.
Jacob Gordin wrote a Yiddish play, Elisha Ben Abuyah (1906); it was played unsuccessfully in New York City during Gordin's lifetime, and more successfully in numerous productions after his death; the title role was written for Jacob Adler, the only actor ever to play it. In the 1911 production after Gordin's death, the fallen woman Beata was played by Adler's wife Sara, Ben Abuyah's faithful friend Toivye Avyoini was played by Sigmund Mogulesko, and his daughter (who, in the play, runs away with a Roman soldier) by the Adlers' daughter Frances; in some of the last performances of the play, toward the end of Jacob Adler's career, the daughter was played by Frances younger, and eventually more famous, sister Stella.
Gordin's Ben Abuyah is clearly a surrogate for Gordin himself, and to some extent for Adler: an unbeliever, but one who thinks of himself, unalterably, as a Jew, and who rejects Christianity even more firmly than Judaism, a man who behaves ethically and who dies haunted by a vision of "terrible Jewish suffering," condemned by the rabbis generally, but lauded as a great Jew by his disciple Rabbi Meir.
Conservative Rabbi Milton Steinberg fictionalized the life of Elisha ben Abuyah in his controversial 1939 novel, As A Driven Leaf. Steinberg's novel wrestles with the second century Jewish struggle to reconcile Rabbinic Judaism both culturally and philosophically with Greek Hellenistic society. In Elisha's struggle, Steinberg speculates about questions and events that may have driven such a man to apostacy, and addresses questions of Jewish self-determination in the Roman Empire, the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 C.E.), and above all the interdependence of reason and faith. Although the novel draws on Talmudic tradition to create the framework for Elisha's life, Steinberg himself wrote that his novel "springs from historical data without any effort at rigid conformity or literal confinement to them."
Iraqi-Israeli author Shimon Ballas' novel Outcast, published in English in 2007, features an Elisha-like character. Outcast is narrated by Haroun Soussan, a Jewish convert to Islam. For Iraq, he left Judaism, embraced Islam, and fought Zionism as the nonpareil, ethnocentrist threat to his dreams. He has lost his closest friends because of politics, particularly Assad Nissim, a principled Iraqi Jew forced to depart for Israel. Despite everything Soussan believes and has done, however, what he was is not forgotten, and he feels an outcast not merely from the Jews and the West but within his homeland. Based on a historical figure, Ahmad (Nissim) Soussa's work ended up being used as anti-Jewish propaganda during the era of Saddam Hussein. Commenting on the use of Soussan's writing on Judaism by propagandists, his friend Assad Nissim likens him to Elisha Ben Abuya, or the one they called Aher, the Outcast. In Hebrew, the title of the book is V'Hu Aher, which means And He is an Other or And He is a Different One.
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