Jews around the world had a sense of detachment as we watched the brutal attack last week on Salman Rushdie. There is almost some relief in the knowledge that this isn’t our battle. It is not our text that was undermined, and it certainly was not one of us who carried out this heinous act. But it is important to ask ourselves how we would react if any of that was the case. If the situation were different, and it was about the chumash he was writing, would Jews still react in horror? Of course they would not encourage anyone to harm such a figure, but would they lament the act? Put differently, what if it was Zalman instead of Salman?
Putting aside the historical issue of bans, both on people and on books, which have had mixed results historically, one of the earliest extended discussions of apostasy and the attitude towards it is in the Talmud. It is the famous story of Elishah ben Avuyah, a second-century figure, who was later known as “Acher” (literally, the Other).
The exact catalyst of Elisha’s downfall is unclear. In the Jerusalem Talmud, it is said that he sees a boy fulfill a biblical commandment of sending away the mother bird, by the instruction of his father, only to die shortly thereafter. Besides the magnitude of the tragedy, which is mentioned elsewhere in the Talmud, what makes the episode so perplexing to Elisha is that the two commandments that the boy had fulfilled are both said by the Torah to be rewarded with a long life. In contrast to this account, elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud it says he witnessed the aftermath of the execution of one of the great sages killed in the second century, and was astonished that that could be the fate of a Torah scholar. In perhaps the longest discussion of Elisha’s life, the Talmud in Chagiga states that Elisha ben Avuya was one of the figures involved in the study of Pardes, which can be described as a metaphysical study of the world. The Talmud then relates that Elisha saw a vision of a high-ranking angel functioning in a way that was out of keeping with what he had learned about heaven. According to another account, he fell under the influence of Greek thought, “whose texts would fall from under his bosom.”
In all the accounts, he concludes that what he witnessed can only be explained if there are other forces in control in the universe. And from that point forward, his interpretations and his conduct were influenced by that mistaken notion. Compounding this problem was that repentance was withheld from him for one reason or another. Case in point, depending on the account, subsequent divine voices that he hears – or verses that a schoolchild repeats to him – are understood, and even misunderstood, by him to mean that G-d is not interested in his repentance. And according to most accounts, he dies without having repented. When he does die, however, it becomes clear that he is in limbo: he studied too much for him to go into purgatory, but his apostasy prevents him from going into heaven. So Rabbi Meir – who had tried during Elisha’s lifetime to bring him back, even when it meant walking alongside him as he rides a horse on the Sabbath in contravention of the law – decides that he will eventually “bring up smoke from his grave,” so that he will receive his purification and can then go to heaven, which is what happens.
There are several unusual elements to this story, not least of which is why it is important to know the background of Elisha’s fall from grace. More than an entire half of an amud in Chagiga discusses it, and it is found in more than a dozen places across the rabbinic corpus. Does it really matter, if the end result was that he was an apostate? Also, why does Rabbi Meir play such a central role in this story; being the Sage that he was, it would make more sense to diminish Rabbi Meir’s involvement. Moreover, it is incredibly difficult to understand that such a downfall should involve divine voices and bibliomancy. What significance does that have?
Three things become clear. The first is that, particularly in the way the story is portrayed, there is a modicum of understanding, if not for Acher than for his circumstances. For one reason or another, he could not find his way back – and not for lack of trying. The attitude that is espoused here is to look for insights into how someone could become estranged, not to look for ways to punish them.
The second is that the Talmud is concerned more with the impact that his thought has on Rabbi Meir and others, than it does with the fact that he took on those views. This is borne out by the way the Talmud asks how Rabbi Meir can learn from him; the answer given is that “he ate the fruit and threw away the peels,” meaning he retained only the doctrinally pure ideas. And also by the statement in Shir Ha’Shirim Rabbah that defines his “destruction of plantations,” a term for apostasy, as the fact that he used to disturb the study of others – telling us that what is of greater concern is the negative impact that Acher had upon other students. That is to say, more will be gained when we look for ways to minimize the impact of mistaken views than to address or correct them.
Finally, the fact that Acher’s ultimate fate had to come from a divine voice or be communicated through providence is also an indication that it is not up to human beings to decide such a person’s fate. In our day and age, this translates into never taking divine justice into our own hands, even as we distance ourselves from offending views.