Rabbi Meir And Elisha Ben Abuyah: Part I
Acher: He Who Must Not Be Named
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Can we ever do something so bad there’s no coming back from it?
The Talmud tells us that Elisha ben Avuya, the famous apostate “Acher,” was unable to repent. What was it about this man that was so evil that his teshuvah could never be accepted? To complicate the matter even further, we’re told that Elisha’s former student, Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest sages of the Talmud, stayed fiercely loyal to his teacher — even after Elisha renounced Judaism. Why?
In this series, Rabbi Fohrman unpacks this incredible episode from the Talmud to uncover what it may teach us about grappling with our shortcomings and the true nature of atonement.
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to this series of online classes. This is an experiment of sorts. I’m very excited about doing this and I’ll tell you why I’m excited about it. I hope you’re excited about it too, but the reason why this is great for me is because I work on a lot of new material and there is a process for me, at least personally, in terms of working on that material. And in earlier stages of that process, feedback from you—interested listeners, passionate listeners, who really think about the material and kind of sift through it—is really, really crucial for me. About a half an hour, maybe forty minutes, of audio per week, and then a discussion forum where I invite you to get back to me, get back to others in the group, about what it is that you think about the kind of things that we’re talking about.
And invariably—when I did this about five years ago—I found that whenever I started a class like this, and I had an idea of where it was that I wanted to go five or six weeks hence, it never actually panned out. There was always so much fertile discussion on the discussion boards that led me in directions that I hadn’t really anticipated, that it turned out to be as surprising a journey for me as it was for the rest of you, and a rewarding journey for me, because what I developed I never would have been able to develop solely, alone. So I really want to welcome you here as partners in this enterprise.
What we’re going to be doing the first time around, in the first of these classes, is a number of sessions. I can’t promise you exactly how many yet. I’ll just say a number of them, probably maybe four, five, six, but I know that whenever I say something like that, it never turns out to what I anticipated so let’s just leave it as, ‘a number.’ A number of sessions on a theme that I have found very fascinating…the theme of Acher, the man who must not be named. You know, is there a Jewish Voldemort, so to speak?
And the background to this is that there is a fellow who sort of lurks in the background as a Tanna in Talmudic literature, he is a fellow by the name of Elisha Ben Avuyah, he is the Rebbi of Rav Meir. Rav Meir, of course, is one of the key Tannaim of the Mishnah. Rav Meir is a student of Rebbi Akiva, he’s also a student of Elisha Ben Avuyah. And Elisha Ben Avuyah is known simply by the moniker “Acher”…literally “the other one.” The reason why he is known that way is because he is sort of the man who is not to be named.
And “Acher” is the sort of archetypal Apikoros, the heretic. The person who knew it all, who was a Sage, who climbed to the very top levels of Torah scholarship, and then sort of threw it all away, lost his faith. A very interesting kind of person. And what’s more interesting than Acher himself, is the relationship that Rav Meir and Acher have. What’s really interesting about their relationship is that they continued to have a relationship at all. Even after Acher sort of falls off the map.
So, in other words, after Acher loses his faith, after he rejects everything it is that he previously stood for, Rav Meir still considers him his Rebbi, and he still maintains a relationship with him. And it’s that relationship that I want to study with you. The fruits that I hope will come from that study are many and quite significant.
I think in general in life we learn a lot from the extremes. The extremes aren’t where we normally live, but the extremes sometimes tell us what we’re made out of. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln…these were great men, but would they have been great men, or would history have remembered them the same way, if they were president in 1955 instead of the times in which they lived. They were great men because they lived in extreme times…because momentous things were happening at their time…extreme, revolutionary things…the type of stuff that doesn’t happen all the time. Civil wars. Brother against brother. Revolutionary wars.
If you think about it even in a legal sense, the Gemara itself, when the Gemara explores things, sometimes when you—a new student of Gemara is often struck by the strangeness of many Talmudic arguments. It seems like you’re splitting hairs about things that don’t really make a difference. The laws of Kiddushin, the laws of marriage, for example, include all sorts of very, very strange cases. What happens if a man says, half of me should be betrothed to you, half of you should be betrothed to me. I mean, who ever talks this way? When is this case ever going to happen?
But the Gemara is testing the extremes. Taking a law to its extreme and saying, what happens in this extreme case? And using that as a window upon the nature of the law. We learn things by testing things at the extreme. Rav Meir’s relationship with Acher takes place at a kind of extreme…an unusual extreme. What happens when a student who learned everything from a man, whose whole identity as a Sage comes from emulating his mentor, his Rebbi, what happens when that mentor leaves it all? What happens to the mentor? What happens to the Sage? And what happens to their relationship?
What happens at that moment tells you something about their relationship. And not just their own personal relationship, it tells you about what a relationship between a Rebbi and a Talmud can be, what it should be, what dangers lurk therein and what opportunities are there as well.
This story, I have to confess, personally, I find incredibly fascinating. It sheds light on all of those issues, as well as other issues as well. Is there anything unforgivable? What about that extreme? Can a person become unredeemable? What happens when you think you’re unredeemable? The story between Acher and Rav Meir deals with these questions as well as some of the most deep and difficult things that we all struggle with.
Tzadik v’ra lo, bad things happening to good people. How do we all deal with it when it does happen? All of this is big stuff, and it’s all compacted into this one pithy little story, so I’m really eager to study it with you.
Now, that relationship is catalogued through a number of different stories scattered throughout the Gemara, scattered throughout the Babylonian Talmud. But I have a theory, it’s just a theory, and it’s one that I want to share with you here, and it will help you understand the text that we’re going to be studying here together. We’re actually not going to be studying any of those stories really. We’re going to be studying a text in Midrash Ruth. Ruth Rabbah, as it were.
Basically, there’s a section of Ruth Rabbah—it’s Midrash Ruth 6:4—that aggregates all these stories and combines them into one long story. And it is that long story that I want to study with you here. And the theory that I have is that this story is the original story…that everything that we have in the various different fragments that we find scattered throughout the Gemara are actually fragments of this one story. But it’s this story which is the original story, and that makes a difference for a couple reasons.
First of all, there are differences, there are discrepancies, between the fragmented stories which you find scattered throughout the Talmud, and this one sort of coherent story in Ruth Rabbah. But also it makes a difference for another reason because, aside from the discrepancies, the textual discrepancies between the various versions of the story—which are in themselves significant—the mere fact that it is one story is also significant. There’s a difference between reading a whole bunch of short stories and reading a novel. The novel weaves the different short stories together into an aggregated narrative, and it really makes the whole much more than the sum of their parts.
So it’s how Ruth Rabbah puts together all these stories that is really something, and I want to sort of study that aggregated narrative together with you today. Now one of the opening questions you may have is, what is this story doing in Midrash Ruth, of all places? The story of Ruth seems to be a story that has nothing to do with the story of Acher and Rav Meir. Why is there an extended story of Acher and Rav Meir sort of plopped into the Midrashic account of the book of Ruth?
That’s a very good question, and I think that there’s a nominal answer to that question, and there’s a real answer to that question. The nominal answer to that question is that there is a verse in the book of Ruth which pops up in the story of Acher and Rav Meir and so therefore, nominally speaking, the Midrash gets into the story of Acher and Rav Meir through the back door, as it were, through an exploration of the meaning of this particular verse. And once it’s talking about this particular verse, it tells you the whole story around it, Rav Meir expounds this, in the book of Ruth, and therefore the Midrash gives you the whole lead up to how Rav Meir expounded that verse, which gets into the whole story of Acher and Rav Meir.
So that’s the nominal answer. But that, I think, is not really the real answer. The real answer is that this verse that is expounded by Rav Meir is actually central to the whole story of Acher and Rav Meir. It is, at once, the climax of the narrative which the Midrash tells about the relationship between Acher and Rav Meir, but not only that, in a larger sense, one might even see the whole extended story of Acher’s relationship with Rav Meir as having an intriguing kind of parallel with the storyline in the book of Ruth.
It’s almost as if the book of Ruth is being transported into another age. It’s almost as if centuries later, centuries after the book of Ruth, it all happened again. And this vortex for the replaying of the book of Ruth is that one verse, that verse that appears near the conclusion of the book of Ruth. What is that one verse?
Jump in with me and let’s take a look at it. Okay, the verse is verse 3:13, in the book of Ruth and let me just give you the background to it here. So we’re going to first take a look at just the simple meaning of the verse and then we’ll get into the way that Rav Meir expounds the verse in this story. But here’s how it goes.
Okay, so let’s start with a little bit of background. In the book of Ruth we have two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, married to two Jewish men, Machlon and Kilion. Machlon and Kilion both die and when that happens, Ruth insists on returning with her mother-in-law, Naomi, back to the land of Israel to seek to perform some version of yibum. Yibum, Levirate Marriage, is this idea that when a man is married to a woman, and they don’t have children, and the man dies, there’s a mitzvah upon the brother of the deceased to marry the widow and thereby have children to perpetuate the name of the deceased to make sure that the name of the deceased is not wiped out from Israel.
Now this is not going to be an exact case of yibum, but it’s something like that. Ruth wants to perpetuate the legacy of her dead husband, Machlon. She wants to be able to have a child that will perpetuate his name and Naomi tells her, it’s not going to happen. Your effort is futile. I had these two children, Machlon and Kilion. They’re dead. I’m too old to have any other children, you can’t marry a brother of the deceased, but Ruth insists on going back with her to the Promised Land, to Israel, in hopes that maybe somehow she’ll be able to have a child to perpetuate Machlon’s name.
When they get there, Ruth eventually encounters a relative of her dead husband, a man by the name of Boaz, but Boaz—even after learning who Ruth is, even after being kind to her, Ruth is destitute, allowing Ruth to take some grain from his field, even after all of that—doesn’t seem to be interested in marrying Ruth to have a child to perpetuate Machlon’s name. It doesn’t seem to be on his list of things to do. After all, Ruth has some taint associated with her, aside from her lowly socio-economic status, whatever that might be worth or not worth. She’s from Moab. Moab is persona non grata among Jews…even Moabite converts. “Lo yavo Ammoni u’Moavi bikahal HaShem.” There’s a long-standing rule enshrined in the Torah itself that Jews aren’t supposed to marry Moabites. Now, ultimately, the halakha, as we have it, takes the view that an exception is made for female Moabites. In the memorable words of the Gemara, “Moavi v’lo Moavit,” when the Gemara said that a Moavi cannot come “bikahal HaShem,” cannot come into the nation of God, it just refers to a male, Moavi v’lo Moavit, but it didn’t exclude a female. The language of the Torah’s text strictly read is a language that excludes males only.
But there has been some controversy, historically, around that. And Boaz wasn’t making any signs that he had any intention of marrying Ruth. So Ruth, on the advice of Naomi, sort of takes matters into her own hands. She goes to Boaz in the middle of the night, while Boaz is asleep, and lies at his feet.
Now if you look at the set-up of that story: Naomi tells Ruth to wash and to get dressed up for the occasion, it seems almost like you’re about to witness a seduction scene. If you look at two past stories, if you look at the stories of ancestors of both Ruth and Boaz, these two people who history pits together, there are very similar seduction scenes at crucial points in their ancestry. For Boaz, the story of Judah and Tamar; Tamar seduces Judah, he doesn’t know who she is, and ends up father Peretz, the scion of the Davidic dynasty.
Now once again, Ruth comes to Boaz in the black of the night. If she wants, he doesn’t have to know who she is. And on Ruth’s side, Ruth comes from Moab. How does Moab get his name? Moab is the child conceived through another seduction story: the story involving Lot and his daughters. In each of these stories, the story of Judah and Tamar, and the story of Lot and his daughters, each, if you think about it, is really a kind of strange yibum story. Not classical yibum, not a woman marrying the brother of the deceased, but some sort of extended version of yibum. The story of Judah and Tamar. Tamar is Judah’s daughter-in-law. In the story of Lot and his daughters…his daughters are…Lot’s daughters.
Interestingly in this story, the story of Boaz and Ruth, even though Ruth is by no means the daughter of Boaz, he actually calls her that. He uses the term “biti,” my daughter, when speaking to her. It’s almost like history is set for a replay. Tamar was seeking to perpetuate the name of her dead husband, Er. The daughters of Lot thought there was no one left in the world after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah…they were trying to perpetuate the legacy of the world. Each of them faced a man who was unwilling to go along with them, at least consciously unwilling.
So they resorted to subterfuge. Tamar dressed up and pretended she was somebody she wasn’t and seduced Judah. Lot’s daughters got their father drunk. The man wouldn’t go along so the woman used subterfuge. Here there’s another man who wouldn’t go along. It’s Boaz. And it seems like Ruth is going to also use subterfuge. She also comes in the black of night. The text goes out of its way to tell you that Boaz has been drinking. She can take advantage of that if she wants. But she doesn’t. The story takes an unexpected turn. She doesn’t seduce him.
Verse 8, “v’yehi b’chetzi ha-layla,” and in the middle of the night, “vayecherad ha-ish vayilafet,” Boaz wakes up and he trembles. “V’hinei ishah shochevet m’reglotav, ”there’s a woman here. “Vayomer, mi at?” And he says, who are you?
“Vatomer,” and she says, “anochi Ruth amatecha.” I am Ruth, your maidservant. She identifies who she really is. There’s no lies. There’s no deception.
By the way, if you remember this story, what else does this remind you of? “Vayecherad ha-ish vayilafet,” A man trembling, where else do we have a man trembling? Where else do we have a man trembling who says “Mi At?” Who are you? Except it wasn’t “mi at?” it was “mi atah?”That man was speaking to another man. Not a woman.
Where do we have those elements? Trembling, together with “who are you?” It’s the story of Jacob and Isaac. When Jacob deceived the blind Isaac, who can’t see, into giving him the blessing. Isaac, upon realizing the deception, trembles: “vayecherad ha-ish me’od,” and he says “mi atah?” who was it who came at this time and deceived me? It was the grandfather of all deceptions, taking advantage of someone who couldn’t see, to pretend that you were someone that you aren’t.
Ruth goes back to that very story. There’s another trembling, there’s another “who are you?” But this time the answer is not a lie, it’s the truth. There will be no subterfuge this time. “Anochi Ruth amatecha.: I am Ruth. “u-farasta chnafecha al-amatcha ki go’el atah,” spread your wings over me because you are my redeemer. She appeals to him to do what he doesn’t want to do. Very straightforward. I am who I am, and you are who you are. Will you help me?
What’s his answer? “Vayomer brucha at l-HaShem biti,” blessed are you to God, my daughter. Isn’t that interesting, blessed are you to God, my daughter. He blesses her. Speaking of Jacob and Isaac, what was that story about? What was Jacob seeking? Jacob was seeking more than anything to be blessed. Isaac blessed him without knowing who he really was. Now Boaz blesses her, knowing who she really is. Isaac blessed a son, not realizing it was another son. Now Boaz is blessing a, quote, “daughter”…biti…knowing who she really is. “Heitavta chasdech ha-acharon min-ha-rishon l-vilti-lechet acharei ha-bachurim im-dal v’im-ashir.” Boaz is impressed. Here she is, a young girl, not interested in marrying some young handsome man, but interested in marrying him, a much older man, so that they can have children to keep the name of her dead husband alive.
He then tells her that technically, though, there’s a go’el, a redeemer, that’s closer to her in lineage than he is, and he would have the right to marry her first. So he tells her, this is what must be done, and here is the verse that the story of Acher and Rav Meir is based on. Verse 13. “Lini ha-layla,” sleep here tonight, he tells her, “v’hayah b’boker,” and in the morning, “im yig’alech tov yigal,” if that other person decides to redeem you, if he decides to marry you, tov, then all is well, yigal, then he will marry you and he will redeem you.
“Im lo yichpotz leg’alech,” but if he does not redeem you, if he doesn’t want to, “ug’altich anochi,” then I shall redeem you, “chai HaShem,” by the life of God. He swears to her in the name of God. “Shichvi ad ha-boker,” sleep until the morning.
Well, there it is. That’s the verse that ultimately I believe is the crux of the Acher and Rav Meir story. And now I am going to give you a lesson on what not to do when reading midrash. Midrash is devilishly hard to interpret, it always is. But you can make the job much, much harder on yourself by taking little snippets of midrash out of context. So I’m going to do that with you right now to show you how ridiculous that enterprise can become when you just look at one small little piece of midrash. I’m just going to look at how the midrash actually expounds this verse. I’m going to note with you how strange it is and then what we’re going to do is come back next time and we’re actually going to look at the story of Acher and Rav Meir that leads up to expounding this verse and then we’ll understand what’s really going on with it. Right? It’s like, oh, that’s what they meant.
Okay, so let me just give you how it is that Rav Meir expounds this verse, I’m just going to note its difficulties with you and then we’ll leave it there for this week. Here we go.
“Lini ha-layla,” Rav Meir says. When Boaz spoke these words to Ruth and said “lini ha-layla,” sleep here tonight, “b’olam ha-zeh,” that means sleep here tonight, quote, “in this world” “she-kulo-layla,” in this world. This world is like night. It’s like one long night. Sleep here tonight. Sleep here in this world. “v’hayah b’boker,” and when he said, ‘and in the morning,’ “im yig’alech tov yigal:, in the morning if somebody else redeems you then, tov yig’al, then that will be fine, here’s how I expound that:
“V’hayah b’boker,” and in the morning, “b’olam she kulo tov,” that doesn’t mean in the morning, that means, in the world that’s like light, that’s full of light, that’s completely light. What world is that? That’s the next world. In that world, “im yig’alech tov yigal.” If “tov” redeems you, then fine. Now remember this is reading Boaz’s words differently. Instead of saying ‘if he redeems you,, then, tov’…then, good, he’s reading it “im yig’alech tov,” if a person by the name of “Tov,” if someone by the name of ‘Tov’ redeems you. What does that mean, in the next world, if someone by the name of tov redeems you? Who’s Tov? “Zeh ha-kodesh baruchu.” Tov is the Holy One blessed be he. If the Holy One redeems you in the next world, good.
How do I know that ‘tov’ is the Holy One, blessed be he, “she’ne’emar,” because it says in the verse in Psalms, “tov HaShem l’kol,” God is good to all. God is good. So therefore the word tov can refer not just to goodness, but refer to God, God is the one who is good to all, so therefore I say that when Boaz said to Ruth, “im yig’alech tov,: if tov will redeem you, he was referring to God, the source of tov himself. If Tov redeems you Ruth then that will be good, “v’im lo yichpotz leg’alech,” but if God will choose not to redeem you in the next world, “y’galtich anochi,” then I, Boaz, will redeem you “chai HaShem,” by the life of God, “shichvi ad ha-boker,” sleep until the morning.
I mean, you read this and you say, what is going on? Why are they making my life so difficult? This world, the next world, tov means God, God’s going to redeem you, God’s not going to redeem you, I’m going to redeem you…what are they being so eschatological for? What does this have to do with this world and the next world and God redeeming? Boaz was saying a very nice simple thing to Ruth, why can’t we leave it at that?
But, it turns out that what Rav Meir is saying here is something very, very deep. He is saying something very profound. Something about Boaz and Ruth that’s very profound, but even more so, something about himself and his Rebbi that’s very profound. In order to see that though, you need to see the larger story, the story that this is all part of. So we’re going to come back next week, read through the story of Acher and Rav Meir which precedes this in Midrash Ruth, then come back to this and see what it all means. I’ll see you then.
Look forward to seeing you all in the discussion boards, see you next week.