His name was Elisha ben (“son of”) Abuya. He’s been called “the Jewish Faust”; and when the 19th-century writer Max Letteris translated Goethe’s Faust into Hebrew, he gave his adaptation the title “Ben Abuya.” The ancient rabbis of the Talmud, who spoke with fascinated horror of their colleague gone bad, called him simply “the Other One.”
Certainly the man existed. The surviving data suggest pretty clearly that he was a Palestinian rabbi of the early and middle second century CE. An early compilation of rabbinic sayings (Pirkei Avot) quotes him as comparing a man who learns when young to “ink written on fresh paper,” while the late-blooming scholar is like “ink written on worn-out paper.” But another saying attributed to him comes across as more ominous, prophetic of his own fate. “A person without good deeds, who nevertheless learns much Torah, is like a horse without a bridle which throws off its rider.”
Who was this Elisha ben Abuya? What did he do?
For this information we’re dependent on two clusters of stories about him, one in the Palestinian Talmud, one in the Babylonian. (There were two Talmuds in ancient Judaism, one compiled in the Holy Land sometime in the fifth century CE, the other in Iraq maybe a century or two later.) These stories describe Elisha’s fall into heresy, his not quite irrevocable damnation, his progress through a string of crimes that begins with fornication and Sabbath-breaking and climaxes in the brutal murder of an inoffending child. His friend and student, the impeccably orthodox Rabbi Meir, sticks with him to the last–and then some. Heroically Meir battles for Elisha’s soul–not against the Devil (who doesn’t appear at all in these stories), but against Elisha himself. Against Elisha’s will, against the will of God Himself, Meir drags Elisha to heaven.
Or does he? The grave keeps its secrets. The clues to Elisha’s post-mortem fate are few and ambiguous.
It’s obvious these tales are legends. The real, historical Elisha is hidden behind them, beyond any hope of recovery. But when we read them it hardly seems to matter. They’re great literature–profound, haunting, resonant. Think of them as a collective dream of the Talmudic rabbis, into which their own hidden impulses, their doubts and despairs, are projected.
The dream, Freud taught us, is the royal road into the unconscious. Jung introduced us to the concept of the shadow: the part of me that I don’t acknowledge, that’s nevertheless essential to the fullness of my soul. Whoever Elisha ben Abuya may have been in reality, in legend he becomes the shadow-side of the ancient leaders and teachers of Judaism. That’s why he and the pious Meir are inseparable, why their endless wrestlings over the meaning of Scripture and the destiny of the human being can never end with resolution.
They’re two sides of the same coin. That coin sometimes lands heads-up, other times tails.
When I taught an introductory course on Judaism at the university, I treated the Elisha stories–or, more accurately, the Elisha-Meir stories–as an profound parable of the inner nature of Judaism, a key to the riddle of how Judaism can manifest itself both as belief and disbelief, as godliness and its opposite. I prepared my own translation of these stories, my own organization of them into a coherent narrative. Year after year I read the stories with my students; year after year we discussed them. I never published them–until now.
Click here to read the stories. Don’t worry if you find them puzzling; that’s what they’re supposed to be. Their aim is to stimulate questions, not to give answers.
And when you’ve read them–please let me know what you think.
by David Halperin
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