Our Jewish Book of the Month is As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. It is the story of Elisha ben Abuya, the tragic heretic, much beloved as a member of the Sanhedrin, a disciple of R. Joshua and the teacher of R. Meir.
The title is from a line in Job. Elisha ben Abuya is a Job figure, someone who could not see past the problem of evil and the failure of a strict interpretation of the retribution principle (the righteous are blessed and the wicked cursed). At one point Job asks the Almighty, “Will you frighten a driven leaf and pursue dry chaff?” (13:25). In other words, God is a mighty storm of wind and Job feels like a driven leaf who has angered the wind. Why should the mighty storm persecute a little leaf?
Steinberg’s novel is a thrilling read. It is even better when you know the source material from which Steinberg derives his story. I am a little behind in reading, not quite halfway through. So I came today to the part in which R. Joshua talks the people out of starting a revolt against Rome. He recites a famous parable in his speech. It was enjoyable to see in fiction a parable that is known from rabbinic literature.
As with all historical fiction, Steinberg adds to the source material to fill in enough incidents and characters to make a story. Behind the fictional tale there are dozens of passages of Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrash about characters such as Elisha, Akiba, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Meir, Beruruah the wife of Meir, Joshua, and more. It is a tale of the third generation of Tannaim (sages from the period leading up to the Mishnah).
In part 1, I explained some parts of the story of Elisha ben Abuya from rabbinic writings. Now I want to relate two more parts of the story: how he became a heretic and the sad tale of his death and its affect on those who loved him.
Elisha the Heretic
Elisha had been raised reading Greek poems, philosophy, and history. His mind was analytical and he desired proof of the type loved by the Greeks.
The story of his fall from faith concerns Deuteronomy 22:7, “you shall let the mother go, but the young you may take to yourself; that it may go well with you, and that you may live long.”
One day he say a boy climb on the Sabbath and take both the mother bird and the young, but nothing bad happened to him. In the eve after the Sabbath, he saw another boy climb to take the young, but preserve the mother. As he came down, a snake bit him and he died.
In the analytical, foundationalist mindset of Elisha, this was proof the Torah did not work.
The story is likely a sort of parable, not to be taken literally. It is an illustration of a larger principle: Elisha decided that the promises of Torah did not work, neither the warnings or the rewards.
The rabbis said he should have considered Akiba’s teaching, that “it may go well with you” means in the life to come and “that you may live long” means in the next world. Modern scholars might also point to two other resolutions for Elisha’s dilemma: (1) the promises are corporate and not individual and (2) they are generally true, but not absolutely-specifically so. That is, Elisha assumed that the promise of long life was for every case and every individual, when the intention of Deuteronomy 22:7 was that Israel as a whole would enjoy long life by following the covenant. And, the promised rewards of righteousness are generally true, but exceptions do not disprove the rule.
The Poignant Tragedy of a Lost Sage Wanting to Be Restored
At a time when Elisha has already been put under the ban as a heretic, he and Meir encounter one another as Meir has been teaching. Elisha asks his former student about the verses he has been teaching. In each case, Elisha mourns the loss of Akiba, whose teaching would have been different from Meir’s. The verses they discuss are from Job and Ecclesiastes. In supreme irony, they all relate to the situation of Elisha, the sad heretic who wants to have his place restored but cannot. The discussion is subtle and ironic.
The high point comes when a verse is interpreted to mean one who has lost their place with God can be restored. Meir says, “So, you too must come back.”
Elisha sadly responds, “I cannot.” He then tells the story of hearing the divine voice say, “Return, O backsliding children, but not Acher [Elisha].” In another version, it is Metatron (a.k.a. Michael or the Angel of the Lord) who declares that Elisha is beyond forgiveness.
When Elisha was dying, Meir came to him and urged him to repent. Elisha reminded him that the heavenly voice denied repentance to him. Meir quoted the words of God from Psalm 90:3, “You allow man to turn up to the time he is crushed.” Hearing this argument, Elisha wept and then died. Meir rejoiced, saying, “My master, it would appear, departed in a state of repentance.”
After Elisha was buried, the disciples of Meir came and told him fire from heaven had lit the grave on fire. Meir cited Ruth 3:13 and lay down all night beside Elisha’s grave. His action, it would seem, changed the heart of God, and by morning the fire was extinguished.
Meir said that it was better that his master should be judged a little while in Gehenna so his sins could be atoned by punishment, but then he would ascend to Paradise. Meir said that when he was buried, smoke would rise from Elisha’s grave as a sign. Meir’s disciples witnessed smoke from Elisha’s grave after their master died.
R. Yohanan was amazed at Meir’s dedication to saving his master from Gehenna. He said, “Only one such sinner [Elisha] was in our midst and we could not save him!” He said that on his death, he would extinguish the smoke on Elisha’s grave. Yohanan’s disciples witnessed the cessation of smoke from Elisha’s grave.
The story apparently ends with Elisha ben Abuya purged and forgiven in the world beyond.
Sources for the Story
The easiest way to find the story of Elisha ben Abuya is in the remarkable compilation by Bialik and Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends which compiles all the stories and topical sayings from rabbinic writings on famous persons and many other topics. Elisha’s story is on pages 243-245.
The references for this long and complex story are as follows (though the book fails to show where one part ends and the next begins, unfortunately):
Bavli Hagigah 15a; Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1, 77a-b; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:8; Ruth Rabbah 6:4; Bavli Kiddushin 39b.
More J-BOM Goodness
In July we will get a summer vacation in the Catskills with Chaim Potok’s The Promise. It too is an easy read and very pleasant.
Then in August we have a short, powerful selection (but I won’t kid you, one that takes more effort to understand) in Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just.