March 1, 2022

Chagigah 15

Almost all of today’s daf (Chagigah 15a-b) examines the personality of Elisha ben Ayuva – otherwise known as ‘Acher’ (literally, ‘the other’) – who entered the ‘Pardes’ and subsequently lost his faith.

It is noteworthy that while Acher’s heresy is often discussed, the fact that he subsequently adopted a sinister, violent and sinful lifestyle is often overlooked. Thus, in contrast to the depiction of Acher in Milton Steinberg’s ‘As a Driven Leaf’ who, as Rabbi Ari Kahn notes in his brilliant essay ‘Elisha Ben Avuya/Aher: The story of a scholar gone astray’ (which can be found in his ‘The Crowns on the Letters’), ‘paints Aher with a sympathetic brush’, Acher became, ‘a sinister being whose very name is not to be uttered’. True, Acher ‘knows with certainty that there is a God; he has seen, with his own eyes, that there is Heaven, and that all human actions are recorded for a final reckoning of reward and punishment. [But] he also knows that he… will not be permitted to repent, so he makes his calculations and embraces sin [and] pursues evil. He chooses to side with that other power, the power that pulls his toward the abyss.’

As Rabbi Kahn continues to explain, there are a number of contributory factors why Acher ‘chose the power that pulls his toward the abyss’. However, I would like to focus on just one, which R’ Kahn deduces from a story in Yerushalmi Chagigah 2:1 where, ‘Elisha (i.e. Acher) recounts the reason and circumstances in which his father, a wealthy and influential man, decided to dedicate his newborn son to a life of Torah scholarship. It was for the power. He saw a power in Torah which had previously eluded him. Attracted by this power, he sent his son to student. Aher feels that because of these tainted origins his study was destined to fail.’

As Rabbi Kahn continues, ‘Elisha/Aher was raised to embrace Torah because of its power, but that power appeared to have been vanquished. Shattered, burned ruins now took the place of the glory of the Jewish people – the House of God. Aher looks at the ruined Beit HaMikdash and concludes that there is another power, something even greater than the God of Israel, which destroyed the Temple. He embraces that power and seeks to align himself with the Romans who now seem more powerful than the Jews. Is this not the lesson that his father always wanted him to learn – to follow the power, to align himself with the most powerful force he could find?’.

Of course, this itself is a powerful lesson – and is one that was alluded to in my recent conversation with Olivia Friedman (see where she explained that Jewish parents want their children to be ‘successful’ but are often ambiguous when explaining what they mean by this, which can mean that young Jews can, at times, make choices not fully aligned with Jewish values in their pursuit of success.

Ultimately, as Rabbi Kahn writes, ‘Aher’s transgressions were certainly numerous, his actions heinous, but they all shared a common core: Above all else, Elisha/Aher was a pragmatist. He was fully aware that his entrée to a life of Torah was born of an attraction to the glory and power of Torah; his dedication to that life, to that truth, was lost when he saw something more powerful. His allegiance was, and always had been, a matter of pragmatism. It was this same pragmatism that led him down the path of decadence, for only a person motivated solely by pragmatism can say, “If I have lost my share in the next world, I may as well enjoy this one.” A man who seeks holiness and truth would not have drawn the same conclusion.’

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