The Talmudic tractate Chagigah tells the tale of Rabbi Meir and his teacher Elisha ben Avuyah.
Despite his teacher’s abandonment of Judaism and descent into heresy, Rabbi Meir would not abandon his mentor. Elisha was branded as “acher” – “other” – by a Jewish community in the Land of Israel that had shunned the apostate and rebel.
One Shabbat, as Elisha rode his horse in violation of the seventh day’s sanctity, Rabbi Meir walked behind his teacher to learn from him words of wisdom. When they reached the techum Shabbat, the maximum of 2,000 cubits that one may walk from his home without violating Torah law on the Sabbath, Rabbi Meir told his teacher not to proceed beyond the limit. Despite his student’s urging, Acher continued riding, thus doubly violating Shabbat. Rabbi Meir was often scolded for following the heretic and attempting to learn from his former teacher. Meir responded that when he found a pomegranate, he ate the seeds and discarded the peel. There were still lessons to be learned from the renegade.
Why did Elisha ben Avuyah abandon Judaism and descend into the heresies of the Greco-Roman world? Rabbinic literature provides a number of answers. The one explanation that I find compelling is that in the wake of the persecutions of Jews by the Roman Emperor Hadrian – persecutions associated with the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 – Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah witnessed the tongue of Jewish martyr Chutzpit the Interpreter being carried in the mouth of a pig. That the vehicle for the teaching of beautiful words of Torah could be debased in such a disgusting manner convinced Rabbi Elisha that God had abandoned His teaching and His people. The sight shocked him into a rejection of God and into the embrace of foreign teachings.
Michah Yoseph Berdichevski, one of Zionism’s most prolific and outspoken rebels, is a modern heir to Elisha ben Avuyah. Like Elisha, the young Berdichevski was grounded in the world of rabbinic Judaism and had a promising life ahead of him as a great scholar in the Russian Pale of Settlement. While it is difficult to identify one specific incident that shook his faith in God, Berdichevski abandoned the world of traditional Judaism by 1890 and immersed himself in Germany in philosophy, specifically the provocative and antinomian writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Berdichevski’s identification with Nietzsche was so prominent in his early writings that the former student of the Volozhin Yeshiva could state in full confidence: “These are the sayings of Rabbi Nietzsche, with which we are threatened, sayings that destroy in order to build.”
What Plato was for Elisha ben Avuyah, Nietzsche was to the Zionist rebel. Berdichevski’s transformation is described in detail in Hebrew University Professor Jacob Golomb’s important recent study Nietzsche and Zion.
Although Friedrich Neitzsche’s philosophy was never expressed by the philosopher in a systematic fashion, there are many ideas embodied in his writings that appealed to Berdichevski. Nietzche’s embrace of a “transvaluation of values,” radical individualism epitomized by the “Superman,” and his focus on “monumental history” of a great warrior past transfixed Berdichevski and catapulted him into a complete rejection of Jewish tradition as stifling, dishonorable and soul crushing.
He wanted to destroy the chains of Exile and the ossifying tradition of Yavneh and present to the world and the Jews a new path to self-realization: “We are the last Jews – or we are the first of a new nation.”
Berdichevski’s Zionism was not solely grounded in politics as in the Jewish psyche and spirit. While the former student of Volozhin certainly envisioned the emergence of the “New Hebrew” as part of a national revolution, he was ardently committed to the autonomy and the genius of the individual. “Give the chance to live to a single individual,” he wrote in the early years of the 20th century, “and the mass will follow after of its own accord.”
I find the tradition that Berdichevski described as an enslaving force to actually be the source of liberation. In fact, Yavneh spawned a “monumental history” expressed in Jewish poetry, leadership and scholarship that is represented by a range of Jews, from Sa’adia to Samuel Hanagid to Maimonides to Gracia Nasi. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was not a weakling and defeatist but a man far more visionary and more of a “Superman” than any of the Zealots slaughtering each other in a besieged Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
We did not study Berdichevski in Bnei Akiva – the Religious Zionist youth movement – and for good reason.
Yet, as I grew older, I could not silence the voice of Berdichevski in my intellect and my soul. His attempt to restore Jewish honor and grandeur, his obsession with the creative spirit of the individual, his radical opposition to ossified tradition, and the passion of his rebellion – these all resonate with me today. I have been the follower of many rabbis in my life – both those long dead and those alive – and I consider Berdichevski to be one of them. I have had to destroy my childhood notions of God and Revelation and rebuild my faith in the Divine and our people as an adult and as an individual with his own mind. That is the path I find that Berdichevski demanded.
I am not alone. Torah scholar Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) recognized Berdichevski as a holy rebel – that is my phrase, not Weinberg’s – whose defiance of tradition was “suffused with the spirit which enlivens faith.” Professor Marc Shapiro, in a recent edition of The Jewish Review of Books, translated an astonishing and wonderful defense of Berdicheski by Weinberg.
The Orthodox rabbi writes in 1921 that Berdichevski is “an ethical heretic, a Jewish heretic, whose heresy is suffused with spirit, which enlivens faith.” Rabbi Weinberg writes that “belief that is tranquil and satisfied testifies to an inner emptiness and lack of thought.” Berdichevski challenges the Jewish believer not to be complacent, to always be challenged. That is the essence of true faith, of real emunah.
Michah Yosef Berdichevski has challenged me. As for Elisha ben Avuyah, I do not accept his heresy but embrace his doubts, even as a believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not the god of the philosophers.
Berdichevski lived in a decaying world that had been debased by Exile and that crushed the soul and the spirit. Elisha ben Avuyah witnessed the humiliation of Torah in the form of Chutzpitz’s tongue in the mouth of a pig.
Elisha despaired and rejected. What of all of us – we who have seen our own Chutzpitzs debased and dishonored? We who have seen the corpses of Shimon Dubnov, Hillel Zeitlin, Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman and Hannah Senesh – is our faith not shaken in some way? Can we go on believing in Hashem as we did before bearing witness? It is at our own peril to ignore Elisha ben Avuyah and Berdichevski. I will not cross the limit, the boundary mark, to embrace their heresy. But I simply cannot be complacent. I will walk with them as far as I must.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.