AHER (Elisha ven Avuyah)–The Reflex 1929


Note: Mysteriously, before I read this, I also wrote a paper on Elisha ben Avuyah in 1995. I hope to add the footnotes at some future point. 

AHER By (Rabbi) Aaron Cohen (The Reflex 1929) The first century of the Christian era was one of the most critical centuries in the his tory of the Jewish people. Rome — with all its imperial power and fury — crushed the political life of Israel. Christianity — more dangerous than the Roman legions–began its eventful career, ready to supplant her distracted mother, willing to undermine the foundation upon which Judaism rested for more than a thousand years. Other corroding influences were openly and secretly at work. Eclecticism was the spirit of the age. Various religion-philosophical sects and sundry semi-religious, semi-philosophical movements assumed definite shapes and forms and made themselves directly or indirectly felt in the spiritual life of the Jewish people. Oriental cults, NeoPlatonic Mysticism, Persian Dualism, Egyptian Trinities. Hellenistic Orpheism, the worship of the Great Mother under the names of Astarte. Beltis, Barbela, Astartic, Cybele, Syrian Aphrodite: phantastic theosophies of Gnosticism: extravagant grotesqueries of Messianic dreams — all this medley made inroads into the traditional currents of Jewish life and Jewish thought. Elisha ben Avuyah — re-named Aher– was a child of that confused and complicated century. His life was a mirror of the disintegrating influences prevailing during the first century, when many sensitive souls lost their balance: when adventurous spirits dared to create new gods and new religions: when many children of ancient faiths fell prey to new doctrines, new faiths and unknown shrines. It was the misfortune of Aher that his tragic and adventurous life was transmitted to posterity through the unsympathetic records of his bitterest enemies. Aher was not fanatical enough to become a St. Paul; nor was he submissive enough to remain an observing Jew. To understand his life we are compelled to use the meagre Talmudic sources at our disposal insuch a manner that we may not become as vindictive as his accusers, nor at the same time overlook the grievous errors of the erratic Aher. “My father was one of the leaders in the city of Jerusalem. On the day of my circumcision all the great man of the Holy city were gathered in our home. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, however, were secluded in a separate chamber. While the people were eating, drinking, singing, dancing, Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Joshua: “Come let us study Torah.” Beginning with the Law, they continued to study the Prophets and Scriptures, until a flame came down from heaven and surrounded the two Rabbis. Said my father: Have you come here to set fire to my house?” “God forbid,” was he answer of the Rabbis. “We are merely studying the Word of God: and the joy thereof is so great as though we are receiving it on Mount Sinai in the flames of God’s revelations.” Said Avuyah my father, unto them: If the divine power of the Torah is so great then should my son grow up, I will dedicate him to the study of theTorah.” Thus makes the Talmud Our Elisha report an autobiographical incident which in its main outline may be taken as a true description of his childhood. It is evident that Elisha was the on of a wealthy Jewish family, where Jewish traditions were not questioned. We can take for granted that his early education was not different from the education of many other Jewish children with the possible exception of two factors, the nature of which is hinted in the Talmudic sources by his enemies. One factor must have been the influence of his mother. “Some say” — the Talmud informs us — “that Aher’s mother, when she was pregnant, used to pass the houses where the Pagan deities were worshipped. She smelled the incense burned to that Heretic. That incense fermented in her body like the poison of a serpent (ibid.). In other words, the mother was suspected of having caught a glimpse or two of another — un-Jewish world, these glimpses had not only a pre-natal influence on the future development of the child, but a possible streak of free criticism might have colored the inner life of the future heretic. The second factor is the desire to gain social distinction through the study of the Torah. “The reason of Aher’s apostasy,” we are told in the Talmud. “may be ascribed to the fact that his father instructed him in the teachings of the Torah not “in the name of heaven,” In other words, the father’s motives in educating his son were not of the best and purest. We have a right to surmise that the brilliant and wealthy young man was given all the opportunities to acquire a thorough knowledge of the Bible, he must have digested all the Halakhic subtleties of the Scribes and the early Tanaim; he must have been quite at home among the creator of the new spirit in the Synagogue. In fine, Elisha, in the eyes of the world was a Talmud Hacham whose words were quoted and even later on were not suppressed by his bitterest enemies. Other influences, however, were at work. We are told, “Greek poetry never left his lips.” a very significant statement, considering the spirit of that time. We are also told, that now and then books of “The Minnim — religious and philosophic scriptures of the Gnostics — were found in his possession. It is not difficult, therefore, to understand the situation. We have here a gifted Rabbi, tasting the forbidden fruit of the Hellenistic spirit. We are face to face with a Jewish teacher who was not afraid to introduce the “beauty of Japheth into the tents of Shem: Nay, more; we are confronted here with an intellectual curiosity eager to delve into all the problems of religion and philosophy agitating his age. Spiritual revolutions are the least revolutionary events in the life of an individual.Ideas, sentiments, notions, assumptions and inhibitions — under the stress and pressure of a re-discovered worlds– lose their hold, change their meaning, become anemic in their most vital spots, and sooner or later die out and become living skeletons at the feast of life. Aher indulged in one of the most dangerous luxuries that a Rabbi could ever afford. He began to think independently. He dated to re-examine the premises of Jewish religious thought prevailing at that time; nor was he afraid to arrive at his own conclusions. The results were disastrous — more for Aher than for Judaism. The Talmud gives us an impartial analysis of Aher’s pilgrimage to strange gods and foreign shrines. The inner struggles of a slow but painful transformation inis wonderfully depicted by short master strokes, by keen observations, by psychological interpretations which should arouse the admiration of the impartial student of Jewish history. “One day” — intimated the Talmud. –“Elisha sat in the valley of Genisan. He saw a man climbing a tree, stealing a nest -with the mother. When he came down, nothing happened to the transgressor. Then he saw another man scrupulously observing the Biblical commandment. He climbed the tree, took the nest of the fledglings but tenderly sent the mother of the birds away. When he reached the ground, a serpent coiled itself around his leg and the poor victim died, ‘It this his reward,” asked Aher, “for scrupulously observing the behests of the Torah?” Again we are told in the Talmud: “Once he saw the bleeding tongue of Rabbi Judah, the saintly baker, who died a martyr’s death, ignominiously mu[n]ched by a the mouth of an indifferent hog. ‘Is this the reward of a life devoted and dedicated to the study of the Torah?” asked Aher in the perplexity of his spirit and in the confusion of his mind? The appealing facts of life did not tally with the ideas of a God of Love and Righteousness. Who know? Perhaps he began to doubt in the very foundations of a moral universe? Things became still more unsettled when his mind began to investigate the deeper– the metaphysical problems of existence. One of the most complicated religio-philosophic problems of all the ages agitated the mind of Aher and the minds of his contemporaries with particular urgency. How can you explain the creation of a material universe by a spiritual God? The Platonic Idea, the Philonic Logos, the Rabbinic Memra, the Proso Anthropos, the Torah — in the form of idealized Wisdom — all these theories were partial attempts to solve the problem of creation. In the esoteric circles of Jewish thinkers of that particular period, the Metatron Idea took hold of a number of Jewish theologian. This dim figure of Jewish cosmogony became the stumbling block for a number of Jewish thinkers, who were lost in the labyrinths of Gnostic metaphysics. Three solutions were offered to the problem of creation: I. Creatio ex nihilo. God, in His infinite power and wisdom created the universe out of nothing. II. Creatio ex materia. God created theuniverse out of a pre-existing material co-eternal with God. III. Creatrio ex medio. God created the universe by the means of an intermediary power between Him and the universe. Creation out of nothing was the solution offered by Jewish Orthodoxy.All the possible objections raised against this theory were overruled by the very logical answer: “Hay-ya a-do- nay tik-tzar?” Is there a limit to the power of God? Creation out of a pre-existing and co-eternal material, based, as a rule, on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, assigned to God the function or the role of the Prime Mover Unmoved: a conception full of contradictions and inseparable difficulties. Creation through an intermediary power or powers was adopted by all the Gnostic sects and was not unfavorably received by a number of Jewish theosophists. We have good reasons to believe that there was a secret circle of Rabbis in good standing who were sincere believers in angles, in the Memra, in an Enoch, who played the part of a private secretary to God, of a semi-deified Messianic figure, ready to relieve the Almighty God of quite a number of his onerous duties. Metatron– the one who stands META TRONOS-Logos in action — Memra in the process of creation –Wisdom in its materialized form– became the Rabbinic conception of a cosmic intermediary in the Tannaic cosmogony. Now, I believe, we shall be in a position to understand the rather obscure passages in the Talmud, which hitherto have been handled in a somewhat careless manner by the students of Jewish History. I will try to give you a rational and scientific interpretation of the famous passage in the Palestinian Talmud, in the second chapter of the Hagigah. “Four entered the Pardes. Ben Azzay, BenZoma, Aher and Rabbi Akiba. Said Akiba unto them: “When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, refrain from saying “Water, water!”. Ban Azzai caught a glimpse and was stricken. Ben Zoma caught a glimpse and died. Aher cut off the tender plants. Akiba entered in peace and left in peace.” In the light of the Gnostic terminology, I am in a position to explain the dark passages of this Talmudic riddle. In the first place, we must remember that water was considered the primordial substance of the material universe. “The spirit of God moved upon the face of the water” is the dictum of the Bible. Likewise Thales took for granted that water is the origin of all other substances. Go enter the Pardes meant to enter into an ecstatic state of mystic speculation wherein your soul and your spirit are utterly absorbed in the soul and the spirit of the universe. This mystic state of mind is expressed in a hymn written by the famous Gnostic Valentinus. He sings; “I behold all things suspended by spirit; I perceive all things born on by spirit– first suspended from soul, soul upheld by air, air suspended from ether, and fruits produced from Bythos, and the child born from the womb. This Bythos, be it remembered, is the absolute source from which all being has its birth. We are told in the same hymn: “The form is not exactly to the life, but the name supplies what is wanting in the effigy, the invisibility of Hod co-operates with that which has been fashioned.” This passage reminds us a great deal of the Talmudic “Shem Ham-fo-rash” the ineffable name of God, employed by saints to overcome the powers of nature. The spirit of man which comes from above has become entangled in the material element which comes from below. The spirit fell from its native sphere and became an exile in a foreign land. Redemption is the restoration of the spirit to its native home; salvation is nothing else than the inherent right of man’s spiritual nature to become like God. To quote a famous passage: “Ye are originally immortal, and children of eternal life, and ye would have death distributed to you, that ye might spend and lavish it, and that death may die in you and by you; and are not yourselves dissolved, you have dominion over creation and corruption.s’ (Strm. Iv. 13) All four Rabbis who entered the pardes were mystics whose souls were attuned to the cosmic consciousness in various and unequal degrees. The first one, Ben Zoma, another ascetic, whose death must have taken place at a time when he entered into the mysterious realism of Metaphysical speculation. The Talmud preserved a very remarkable incident of this Jewish Gnostic. “One day (we are told) Ben Zoma was found sitting alone and most deeply absorbed in contemplation. Rabbi Joshua passed by and greeted him once and greeted him twice, but Ben Zoma gave no answer. When he was greeted once more, Ben Zoma mumbled some reply in confusion. “Ben Zoma,” said Rabbi Joshua, “whence cometh thou?” The answer was: “I was contemplating ***” Then Rabbi Joshua cried out: “Heaven and earth are my witness that I shall not move from this spot until thous shalt let me know whence you cometh.” Ben Zoma answered: “I was speculation on the creation of the Universe. I have found out that there is only a short distance of two or three fingers between the upper waters and the lower waters. * ** Rabbi Joshua turned aside from him and said to his disciples: “Ben Zoma is gone * **” Ere long Ben Zoma was lost to the word.* The soul of the whole passage lies hidden in the one significant fact that Ben Zoma could not find any difference between the upper and the lower waters. Instead of believing in the spiritual world above and in a material world below he arrived at the startling conclusions that the universe is one: that there is practically no differentiation between the upper and lower elements of the universe, Not so with Akiba. When he entered the Pardes he was fully aware of the danger confronting his colleagues. He therefore gave them a clear warning; “When you arrive (he said) at the stones of pure marble do not say “water, water.” In other words, when reach speculatively the ultimate elements of the universe do not speak of those elements in terms of matter. Do not say: “Water, water,” The ultimate reality of the universe is spiritual in its essence and spiritual in its creative process. Nay, this very “mayyim’ must be understood in a spiritual sense; EIN MAYYIM ELAU TORAH. This water is noting else but Torah-Wisdon-Spirit– the Word of God. Thus, Akiba escaped the dangerous pitfalls of Gnostic Metaphysics. What happened to Aher? When he entered the Pardes “HE SAW THE METATRON’: Metaphysically speaking, Aher accepted the theory of creatio ex medio, which in itself would not have been considered a deviation from the Orthodox standards of Judaism prevailing at that time. But the trouble started when Aher began to hypostatize: to give the Metatron a distinct personality and to regard it as a separate and individualized reality. Aher thereby became a follower of Persian dualism and a believer in the “SH’TE R’SHUYOT” — in two equal powers governing the universe independently. Any theory which dared to encroach upon the absolute unity of God was rank apostasy in the eyes of the official Judaism . Aher — to quote the Talmud — conceived the Metros as though he had the power “to sit down and to write down the meritorious deeds of Israel”; God was relegated to an inert and ineffectual aloofness of static glory and Metatron became the real ruler and master of human destiny. Whenever the Rabbis speak of Aher’s apostacy they never apply to him the well known phrase: “KOFER B’IKKAR,” a denier of the existence of the Supreme Being. Aher did not and could not belong to that class of skeptics. When Aher left the Pardes he became a Jew who ‘KITZETZ BINTIYHOT:; that is, his apostasy consisted rather in trimming the branches than in undermining the roots. The existence of God was never questioned by Aher. In practical life, non-conformist have a keener realization of God’s presence than parrot-like standpatters. Was not Spinoza, in the opinion of Novalis, a God-intoxicated man? But this business of trimming the branches is not a very popular business; hence the inevitable conflict between Aher and the official representatives of Judaism. In the first place all ideas pertaining and dealing with Metatron had to be officially and authoritatively rejected. In the second place a strict and thorough examination was applied to all the scholars attending the Beit-Hammidrash with the object of finding out their religious conviction and their philosophic tendencies. The slogan, therefore of the Nasi was “Tocho k’baro’.” the inside of the religious teacher must be as his outside. Everybody had to stand up and be counted. Aher was a great scholar, an independent thinker and probably a rich man. He could match his wits with the dynamic Akiba: he felt that he was not inferior even to the Nasi; he dared to suggest a number of changes in the educational system of the Synagogue; he was in daily contact with the disputing philosophers of his day; he was not afraid to break the Sabbath publicly: his morals probably appeared rather lax and loose in the eyes of the Jewish puritans; being a man of the world he probably had free access to the Roman rulers and their public functions. Then the Bar-Kochba rebellion came which made Palestine a huge cemetery. We know what happened to Akiba and to many other heroes and martyrs. Where was Aher during that critical period? He could remain neutral, because he had nothing to fight for. When the Jews were writing in the aftermaths of that revolution, Elisha felt that he was an “AHER,” a stranger to his own people, an intellectual outcast, a moral expatriate — an exile in his native land. The few stories found in the Talmud about his sexual immorality and about their ways he played traitor to his own people are gross exaggerations. The best refutation of these calumnies is the devotion and the friendship of the saintly and patriotic Rabbi Meir. But morally Aher paid a heavy price for his Metatron. No wonder that his famous disciple could speak of his beloved master without tears in his eyes. Now we will turn to one of the most beautiful, most touching and most tragic friendships that has ever been recorded in the annals of human history. Picture a Sabbath afternoon in Palestine in the City of Tiberius centuries ago. The people are assembled in the Synagogue listening to one of the eloquent preachers of that age; drinking the words of wisdom and holiness from the recognized successor of the never-to-be-forgotten Martyr –Akiba. Suddenly, the city — at lest the Jewish quarter of the city — is agog; Elisha ben Avuyah — the Rabbi who became an Epicurean — the apostate– the traitor– the follower of the accursed Min- nim — is in the city; he is riding a horse — openly, defiantly — on the sacred day of Sabbath. Where is he riding to? Why to the Beth-Hammidrash , where Meir is expounding the words of the Torah. He reached the very door of the Synagogue. Shall he enter? Is there anything common between him and those simple folks, who are enjoying the blessings of innocent faith and finding peace and rest in the bosom of tradition. Will THEY allow him to enter? Meanwhile, a messenger enters the Synagogue and announces: “Rabbi Meir, your master Aher is outside.” The heart of Rabbi Meir must have been torn in twain. Shall he pay homage to his heretic teacher in the presence of this holy congregation? Shall he snub his teacher and thus sever all relationship between them? He interrupted his sermon and went out to meet his erratic master. Later on, Rabbi Meir will pay very dearly for this generous act. What was the motive of Aher’s eccentric deed? Why did he make up his mind to hurt the feelings of his people so recklessly and so unnecessarily? Perhaps it was an unusual — an Aher way — of trying and testing the loyalty and fidelity of his beloved pupil — Meir? What were the feelings of Aher when he saw that Meir stood the test? Who can read the hiero- glyphics of a wounded human heart? The master and the disciple greeted one another. A short discussion of the sermon took place — once a Rabbi, always a Rabbi. Aher spurred the horse; the horse and the rider moved on, followed on foot by Meir. Aher stopped, “Meir,” he said, “Go back! you cannot continue walking unless you are willing to break the Sabbath. Go back!” Aher surely knew that the gates of repentance are always opnen. “No * ** too late ***” whispered the outcast. “Once I passed by the sanctuary and I heard a voice crying from the Holiest of the Holiest: “Return, ye exiled children, with the exception of Aher.” The master hurried away and left his heart-broken disciple in tears and sorrow. How could Meir love his apostate? Well the answer given by Meir was; “I have found a pomegranate. I ate its inside and cast away its outside. It appears to me that this is a direct answer and challenge to the Nasi. Raban Gamliel who insisted on t”tocho k’baro.” It must have been the strong conviction of Rabbi Meir, that a line should be drawn between the external inconsequential philosphizings and the fundamental substance of Judaism. It is our duty to save ELISHA for the great merits of his Torah. Later on when Rabah bar Shilah met Eliijah he was told that God is teaching the Torah in the celestial academy scrupulously mentioning the names of all the Rabbinical authorities: but the name of Rabbi Meir is left out. We know from personal experience that the voices of celestial academics have a peculiar habit of copying the words and the sentiments of the official authorities of our terrestrial institutions. Let us now, however be too quick in condemning the men who took drastic measures to check the propaganda of pernicious doctrines which threatened to the very foundations of Judaism. There is a very little known passage in the Talmud which describes this justified fear in the minds of those who had the future of Judaism entrusted to their hands. Rabbi Judah, the Nasi, while instructing his son, Simon, repeated the words “AHERIM” a few times. “Who are those teachers whose waters we drink but whose names are not mentioned?” asked the son. The father answered. “They are the people who tried to uproot thy honor and the honor of thy father’s house.” “But,” persisted the son, ” Both their love and their envy are no longer with us.” The Nasi replied ” HA-O-YOB TA-MU HA-RO-BOT LO-NE-TZAH (Horiot 14a). the enemy is no more but the ruins remain forever. Needless to say that the Nasi had the best of the argument: for the ruins were staring into the faces of all those who could see that there was one step between a deified Metatron and deified Jesus. At last word reached Rabbi Meir that Aher is ill. Rabbi Meir betook himself to Aher’s home, where he found him in a hopeless state. “Come back,” he pleaded with his dying master. “Do you think I will be received,” inquired the sceptic. “Yes,” answered Rabbi Meir. “God brings down a human soul to the very dust so that it may rise to the highest glory of repentance,” At that moment Elisha wept. He closed his eyes and died. Rabbi Meir was happy in his heart for he said: It appears to me that he died penitent.” Well most of the death-bed conversions and repentances are (to say the least) highly exaggerated. But heretics are not left alone even when they are dead. We are told that when he was buried, a flame came down from heaven and consumed his grave,. Then some people came and told Rabbi Meir that the grave of his Master is all in flames. The indomitable Meir found Aher’s grave enrapt in hellish fires. What did the the faithful and loving disciple do? He took off his garment and he covered up the grave with it, saying” (Paraphrasing a passage from Ruth)” “Stay here over night — in this world which is as dark as night — wait for the morning — the morning of eternal life ; if the All Good — the Holy One– will redeem thee– well; if He will not desire to redeem thee– then I will redeem thee.” The love of Rabbi Meir for Elisha put out the flames on Aher’s grave.