Sunday, February 06, 2005

Elishah ben Abuyah

According to the Talmud there was a very knowledgeable Torah scholar named Elishah ben Abuyah who turned heretical. Some scholars say he was a Gnostic, others say Sadducee, and still others see him as an Epicurean. His turnover was so unpalatable for the rabbis of the Talmud didn't call him by name but they called him "Acher," the other one.

I like to think of him as a man who used reason over faith (I'm not the only one) and so could not bring himself to fall in place within rabbinic norms. This intellectual primacy was what caused the rabbis to defame his name and create legends about his birth and reasons for heresy.

For more information see here.


Sarah said...

For someone who was a heretic, I find it interesting that he remained so immersed in Torah and so important within the Jewish community. How would you interpret the fact that he seemed to wish he could take it all back, but thought he couldnt (like when R. Meir told him to turn back, he didn't say that he didn't want to, but that he couldn't, because God or the people wouldn't want/take him)?

Orthoprax said...


First and foremost, I think he was a Jew. He may have been a heretic, but he didn't reject his people. But like any person who believes things based on intellectual honesty, who truly really believes something, no pragmatic factors can ever affect a change in his mind.

If this is a true description of Elishah, then I can identify with such troubles. He wanted to believe in God and all that went with Jewish theism. It's a nice idea and it would be great if true. But he truly and honestly didn't and couldn't believe it. So how could he return to the fold? If God existed, how could he return knowing that God knew he wasn't being true?

Better a heretic than a hypocrite perhaps.

Sarah said...

My difficulty is that b/c you don't believe in God at all (if I understand correctly), you're admittedly lax in many mitzvot. Elisha ben Avuyah seems to have been anything but. He may have doubted, he may have been a heretic, but to my understanding he was a pretty letter-of-the-law type of guy. Couple that with his wishing to be able to come back, and I'm not sure he was so sure it didn't exist...

Orthoprax said...


There are times when I can almost believe in a God. I allow myself that because it makes it so much easier at times, especially at social activities and holidays, to suspend my disbelief.

And sometimes I speculate about an intelligence being responsible for the universe or how we came to be. But I can't just believe that because I imagine it. I imagine lots of things.

So it's not that I "don't believe in God at all" but more like I find myself unable to believe in the theistic worldview but sometimes I can imagine something being out there, unknown or incomprehensible to us. If there is a God, to me he would be unlimited and undefinable. No human theology could do him service.

Anyway, back to Abuyah. Did you read the linked site? According to the Gemara, Abuyah rode horses on Shabbos and Yom Kippur. He dealt with prostitutes and pulled a radish from the ground on Shabbos. Letter of the law? Not quite.