Painting by Bev Patterson
THE STOICS HAVE a riddle: "A man is traveling in the desert. In his gourd he has enough water for one drink. He comes upon two men dying of thirst--one, his own father, the other, a philosopher. Now the problem is, to whom should the water be given?"
Woe to the one who must solve this riddle. Milton Steinberg allows us to see inside the life of one man who tried, Elisha ben Abuyah. Living during the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion of 132-135 C.E., Elisha was a historical figure about whom not much is known. The bare bones are that he was a rabbi, that he read Greek books, and that he was excommunicated. Steinberg breathes life into this skeleton, and through imagination Elisha comes alive as a man trying to bridge ancient tradition with modern philosophy, faith with reason.
Elisha is born amidst tension. His mother dies in childbirth; his father is a Hellenistic Jew who disdains his tradition and secures a Greek tutor for the boy. His orthodox uncle attempts to win Elisha back to his Jewish heritage and apprentices him to a renowned Sanhedrin scholar. By the age of ten he is an orphan in a land hemmed round with political and cultural upheaval. Survival of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple is a constant source of anxiety that weaves through the story. Their faith in the one God is thrown against the philosophical systems of the Greeks and the social infrastructure of the Roman Empire. Since cultural genocide was a very real possibility for the Jews, you begin to appreciate why they turned to militarism on the one hand, and religious purity on the other.
Although Elisha is already ten when he starts studying the Torah, he learns quickly and is nurtured by the kind and wise spirit of his teacher, Joshua. His Greek training recedes as he becomes a noted rabbinical scholar and then is inducted as a rabbi into the Sanhedrin. Notwithstanding his orthodoxy, the losses incurred as a child have etched an emotional faultline. His unhappy, childless marriage deepens the pressure. He finds happiness through his associations with scholars and particularly with the family of one of his students. But tragedy strikes these people who have become a surrogate family for Elisha. In empathy with their pain, his own life begins to unravel as he begins to question the mercy of God. Hairline fractures become fissures, and the unanswered questions from his Greek past re-emerge in full fury. Elisha tries in vain to bolster his crumbling faith with reasoned assumptions, using Greek rhetoric as part of his arsenal. But he soon realizes that his need for intellectual understanding cannot be contained by superstition and blind faith. The tension between external demands of rabbinical life and his inner turmoil soon leak out. Eventually, circumstances and his own integrity force him to betray his lost faith, and the community resoundingly moves to sever all ties with him.