Wednesday, July 06, 2011

A homily on Elisha ben Avuyah (Acher)

A HOMILY ON ELISHA BEN AVUYAH (ACHER/AHER/AKHER) by Rabbi Andrea Myers appears in The Jewish Week: From Elisha Ben Abuyah To Morris, The Golfer: Hearing the voice of the Other. Excerpt:
Morris is in good company. When we talk about what it means to be Other in the Jewish community, it is essential to look at the first Other: Elisha ben Abuyah, the first/second-century rabbi who becomes known as Acher, or Other, because of his apostasy. There are many stories about why he lost his faith, but the most powerful one describes the incident that may have pushed him to reject the central tenets of the Judaism of his time:

For it was taught: R. Jacob said … in connection with honoring parents it is written, “that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you” (Deut 5:16). In reference to the dismissal of the nest it is written, “that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days” (Deut 22:6). Now, if one’s father said to him, ’Ascend to the loft and bring me young birds,’ and he ascends to the loft, dismisses the dam and takes the young, and on his return falls and is killed, where is this man’s happiness and where is this man’s prolonging of days? ... Now, what happened with Acher? Some say, he saw something of this nature. (B. Kid.39b)

Like Morris, Elisha ben Abuyah had a problem of theodicy: the question of how God can exist if there is evil in the world. His experience led him away from the Jewish community; he went from being a respected scholar to an apostate. After this break with the tradition, his name was no longer cited in the Talmud.
How interesting. I was not aware of this passage and Simon Holloway did not include it in his three-part survey of the Akher traditions at his blog Davar Akher. Actually, Elisha ben Avuyah shows up a number of times in the rabbinic literature, especially in connection with the story of the four who entered paradise. The better-known account of his apostasy, which is associated with that story, is translated (from 3 Enoch) and discussed here. And I have one more post on Aher here.