My friend Hesh was the first to tell me the story of the Acher, the esteemed Elisha ben Abuyah who abruptly turns apostate.
Our paths crossed as children, but it would not have occurred to Hesh and I to speak to one another in those early days or even to look one another in the eye across the great gender divide. Fast-forward a decade or two and we find ourselves members of an ad hoc mid-seventies subculture of lost souls all of whom have left their orthodox upbringings behind, all of whom unmoored, float through a kaleidoscopic wonderland of a world, circling like lone doves, wondering where they might land.
As it happens, one of our lunch-time gatherings opens with the story of the Acher. I invite you to picture this along with me, my old friend Hesh and today’s lunch and learners: A once eminent rabbi named Elisha ben Abuyah has abruptly lost his faith. Now known as “the Acher” or the Other, the Acher flamboyantly rides through his hometown in defiance of the laws of the Sabbath. So hungry is Rabbi Meir for words of Torah from the mouth of his former teacher, the breathless disciple runs alongside the horse, oblivious to time and space, lost in urgent discussion. As for the renegade Acher, he has not neglected to carefully measure the distance covered by the strides of his horse. When he knows they are about to exceed the Sabbath limits, the Acher excitedly cautions Rabbi Meir to turn back. Still riding high, he transgresses the boundary. He offers an explanation: A voice from the hidden sphere beyond the veil has called out that all erring children should return. However, he lets us know, the voice has added, all errants – except Acher.
My friend Hesh and I, both self-exiles from the parameters of Orthodox Jewry shared a fascination for this story and the figure of Acher. Here is a revered and righteous leader whose faith is abruptly eradicated. He is unabashed in his display of profligacy. Yet his depth of wisdom is so unique that a student destined to be a great man still wants to study with him, even if he has to trot alongside horse and rider on the Sabbath day. When they reach the limits, the Acher – presumably a man of no faith – passionately urges Meir not be brought to sin unwittingly and on his account. But if the Acher truly does not believe in the authority of rabbinic law, why would he care?
The paradoxical nature of belief/non-belief is deepened by the voice from behind the veil. How can the outlook of a great sage who has renounced the abiding authority of God still be dictated by a bat kol, or a voice presumed to emanate from God? Why does such a message hold sway? What authority still resides for him in the invisible abode from which the voice arises? Internal contradictions abound. The voice’s message is received like a heavenly decree – one to which the Acher clings with great certainty – even if he has rejected Jewish faith and its tenets with a certainty just as great.
It is suggested that perhaps Acher’s essence did not change, only his exterior. R. Meir’s continuing devotion to his heretical Master is justified by the hopeful comparing of the Acher to a pomegranate. The suggestion is that R. Meir ate of the inside while knowing enough to throw away the peel.
Does that suggest that certain personality traits, emotional quirks, inadvertent traumas or otherwise transitory determinants of our nature allow certain people to steadily maintain faith, while the same “external” (or transient, personality-linked) factors make it impossible for others? Does that imply that the souls of those who in their temporal existence stray from observance may be untainted in their essence?
My friend Hesh did not live long enough for me to tell him about my return to lunch-time Talmud classes. He would not have been surprised. Like the Acher, neither one of us could consider resuming an orthodox way of life. But a certain ultimate nature of concern is not so easily shaken. There are voices, beckoning and broken, that always remain.