4 CHAPTER 4. Applying the Concept of the National Dialogue with God to Current Problems Facing Judaism

We begin our discussion with an analysis of one of the most well known legends from the Talmud, the tale of “The Four Who Entered Paradise”; we will then look at contemporary problems in Jewish life in the context of Rabbi Kook’s analysis.

1. The Story of Elisha ben-Abuya

The Aggadah, as it appears in Kiddushin 39B and similar sources, relates the following:

Four men, the rabbis Akiva, Ben-Zoma, Ben-Azai, and Elisha ben-Abuya, entered Paradise. Rabbi Akiva entered and left in peace. Rabbi Ben Zoma lost his wits, and Rabbi Ben Azai died. But Elisha ben-Abuya entered the garden and began to cut down the plantings.

Four men entered Paradise: Paradise, or pardes, which means garden, represents the attainment of all levels of understanding of the Torah, from the simplest to the deepest and most complex mystery.

Rabbi Akiva entered and left in peace. He was the only one able to leave unscathed. The others could not endure the complexities and strain raised by knowledge of the higher world.

Elisha ben-Abuya entered the garden and began to cut down the plantings. He entered the garden of understanding of the Torah, but acted against it: he ceased to observe Jewish law, left the religion, joined the Romans (this was at the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt), and fought with them against the Jews. For this reason, ben-Abuya is referred to in the Talmud as “Acher” or “the other.”

The Talmud attempts to explain how one who had reached the very heights of enlightenment could defect to the Romans and fight against the Judaism. It continues with the following story:

It happened that one day Elisha was sitting by a tree when a father said to his son, “Climb up this tree and get us some chicks from the birds’ nest.” The son, doing as he was bid, climbed the tree. He pushed the bird out of the nest, as it is forbidden to take a bird with its fledglings, and took the chicks. Climbing down, he fell to his death.

Elisha ben-Abuya, seeing all this, said, “There are two commandments for which the Torah promises long life. One is “Honor your father and your mother, in order that your days be lengthened on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12); the other is, “If a bird’s nest chances before you on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and it contains fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother upon the young. You shall send away the mother, and then you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.” (Deut. 22:6) This young man has fulfilled precisely these two commandments. But instead of receiving longevity, he has fallen to his death.”

From this, Elisha drew the conclusion that the whole Torah was untrue. If, he reasoned, its promises are not fulfilled, there is no point in observing its commandments. He abandoned Judaism and took up with the Romans.

Later in the Talmud, another sage, the Rabbi Jacob, whom some believe to have been the nephew of Elisha ben-Abuya, explains that Elisha did not know how to interpret the Torah, and so fell into heresy. According to Rabbi Jacob, there are no rewards for fulfilling the commandments in this life; the rewards come only in the afterlife. The long days referred to in the Torah are eternity.

The problems of understanding this Aggadah
and all Aggadahs in the Diaspora

That is all the Talmud has to say about this tale. However, the more we ponder it, the less we understand. What is the internal contradiction here? The most obvious one is that, on the one hand, Elisha ben-Abuya entered Paradise – that is, he attained the highest level of understanding of the Torah – and on the other hand, his nephew, who was not distinguished among sages, claims that Elisha was unable to interpret Torah and he himself is. How could this be?

I do not know what answer was arrived at by those who pondered this tale in past centuries: the classical commentators give none.

I will note here parenthetically that in the yeshivas, Aggadah was not deeply studied. When I was just becoming acquainted with the Talmud, in Moscow at the end of the 1970s, I studied with Rabbi Avrom Miller, a wonderful teacher to all religious Jewish youth, who never ceased to obey the commandments despite all of the obstacles of life under the Soviet regime, including time in Stalin’s camps. As a young man, Rabbi Avrom had studied at the celebrated yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, known as the best “Lithuanian” yeshiva of the early twentieth century. When he taught us Talmud, he told us to study the Halakhic texts minutely and come to understand them fully, but to read the Aggadic sections without deep investigation. They needn’t be analyzed, he said, as we cannot understand them anyway. In other words, they are good reading for the simple folk, and, of course, they contain deep meaning, but their message is unattainable to us, so there’s no point delving into them. Thus, serious study of Aggadah was not developed in the classical yeshivas, and few of the great rabbis wrote commentary on it. This may be one reason why we find no answer there to our question.

It might also be noted here that though we find many Aggadic texts in the Babylonian Talmud, almost all of them originated in the Land of Israel, and they have an Eretz Yisrael feel to them. Almost the whole body of Aggadic texts is centered around the Land of Israel, a factor which contributed to the difficulty of understanding them in the Diaspora. At one point, the Talmud even states that the Babylonian Jews don’t study Aggadah because they are vulgar and would not be able to understand it. It implies that the Jews of the Galut are better suited for the rigid, technical, logical teachings of Halakha, while Aggadah is too subtle for them.

It is therefore significant that with the return of the Jewish people to Israel, Aggadah has played an ever larger role as we look to the Torah for guidance.

Interpreting the Aggadah of Elisha ben-Abuya
with the help of Rabbi Kook’s ideas

How can the tale of “The Four Who Entered Paradise” be interpreted according to Rabbi Kook’s ideas? The core of this new approach is that when the Torah refers to “thou,” it addresses itself less to the individual Jew than to the Jewish people as a unified whole. The Torah is above all a dialogue between God and the Jewish people, and to them it is primarily directed. In places, of course, it speaks also to the individual, as in Genesis, where Adam is both all humankind and every man. We see an example of “thou” as directed to the people as a whole in “Hear, o Israel: thou art to pass over the Jordan this day…” (Deut. 9:1). Here it is clear that the words are addressed to the people as a group. This understanding must inform our interpretation of other commandments as well. Thus, when the Torah promises long life as a reward, the promise is not to the individual fulfilling the given commandment, but to the Jewish nation. If the nation respects its elders, it will enjoy longevity; if it spares mother birds, it will dwell longer in its land.

This interpretation, in fact, makes clear why the commandment not to take the bird is associated with long life. There’s no magic here. It does not imply that “if you spare the bird God will spare you,” as we might incorrectly suppose if we look at it from the individual point of view. This is an ecological commandment[1]: preserve nature and you will live long on the land. Take the eggs or chicks for food, but leave the bird so that her species may continue to thrive.

The Talmud commands that one who prays, “Thy mercy extendeth to young birds” (Berachoth V.3, 33b) should be silenced, as, clearly, the reason for this commandment is not mercy for the bird. However, what the meaning of the commandment is, the Talmud, written at a time when only the individual’s dialogue with God was real, does not explain.

Thus, these commandments promise long life in the context of a national, not an individual dialogue with God. The Torah emphasizes this in many places: national righteousness and sinfulness, national reward and punishment. As an example of this viewpoint, let us examine that most important and well-known excerpt, the Shema (Deut. 6 and 11). The Torah instructs us to repeat this familiar prayer twice daily, but we do not always pay attention to what we are repeating:

And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied. Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you. Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates; that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth. (Deut. 11:13-21)

If we observe the commandments, God promises us rain for the earth and long life on the land which he has given us. If we do not observe them, the skies will close up, there will be no rain, and we will be forced from the land. It is clear that these rewards and punishments do not come in the afterlife. It is also clear that God is speaking to the people as a whole: rain is sent to all, and exile is likewise shared. Although there is, of course, a parallel dialogue between God and each individual, the collective focus prevails, as the Torah seeks not only the righteousness of the individual but of the national-social life of the people.

Thus, the commandments to honor the parents and spare the bird are concerned with the longevity not of the person observing them, but of the nation, which must respect its elders and preserve nature.

2. A Turning Point in Jewish History

Here we must note yet again that all four of those distinguished Jewish sages who entered heaven, three of whom were unable to return in the same condition, lived during a time of transition, on the borderline between the first and second eras in Jewish history. (One might surmise that at other times there lived sages who entered Paradise without a crisis.)

At the end of the second century, after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, when the Jewish national organism was in its death throes, history turned a corner, and the national dialogue with God disintegrated, leaving only that of the individual. Simple people, like slow-moving cars, maneuvered the bend smoothly, perhaps not even noticing it. Although from a historical point of view, it was a tremendously sharp turn, they did not feel its abruptness, as it occurred over the course of a century. But distinguished sages, weighed down by knowledge and Tradition, were like powerful, heavy trucks, careening with trailers in tow, that easily flew off at the bend. Burdened with a generations-long tradition of study, they were unable to change direction so sharply. Of the four who entered paradise, Rabbi Akiva was the only one who managed the curve and was able to hold the road. This is why the entire Mishna would afterwards be based on his teachings and the teachings of his students.

Every person (including the sage who feels himself to be a link in the chain of Tradition) interprets the Torah in the context of his own experience and attitudes, factors which exist always in the present, which are tied to the epoch and its problems. Elisha ben-Abuya lived at a turning point. He was unable to interpret the Torah’s words on longevity in the national sense, as he had already broken psychologically from that earlier world-view. The national dialogue had been lost, and he had no sense of it. In the context of his time, he interpreted the Torah’s verses as pertaining to the individual. But he could not reinterpret them so dramatically as to see them in terms of the afterlife. He understood that the Torah speaks of this life, yet this understanding could not be reconciled with the first – that the Torah speaks to the individual. Over the preceding centuries, the Torah and its commandments had been viewed in the national sense, and so rewards and punishments could take place in this life. In the following century, his nephew would have no difficulty interpreting the Torah in the individual sense and applying its words to the afterlife. But at this turning point, his two views could not be reconciled, and he ran off the road.

In other words, Elisha ben-Abuya was at a much higher level than his nephew. Nor was it a matter of his being ignorant of some commentary to the Torah regarding the afterlife. Of course, like all sages of the oral tradition, he believed in the afterlife. However, he could not in this case have embraced such a commentary, because he knew that these verses refer to longevity in this world. But this was incompatible with an era in which the dialogue with God, and, consequently, righteousness, were understood only at the individual level. The national dialogue had already collapsed and could no longer be the basis for understanding, but he was not yet able to assert that the Torah referred to the afterlife.

It is worth noting that just at this time, during the era of the destruction of the Second Temple, the question of the afterlife and its rewards received a great deal of discussion. This issue barely shows up in the Torah, although the Jews, fleeing Egypt, where everything turned to the idea of the afterlife, could not have lacked a conception of it. It simply wasn’t important to the Torah. However, by the end of the period of the Second Temple, when the national dialogue had collapsed, the individual’s afterlife took center stage. And for Christianity, which emerged from Judaism at that very point, the question of rewards and punishments after death is at the center of the theology. The Christians view the salvation of the soul as applying only to its fate in the afterlife. From this comes the vital role played in Christianity of heaven and hell and, accordingly, the loss of the national aspect of the dialogue with God.

This is how the story of Elisha ben-Abuya can be understood in the context of Rabbi Kook’s ideas. And now, I hope, you can guess where the logic of this discussion leads next. (I once heard a wonderful suggestion from Professor S. Rosenberg. He suggested that, in order to confirm that you fully understand what you are reading, you should cover the next paragraph and try to figure out what it should say. If you are able to do so, you have mastered the text. Try applying this test right here.)

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  1.   We note that there are many such environmental commandments in the Torah. Some examples: “When you besiege a city for many days … you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down… Only a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down…” (Deut. 20:19) It is therefore not out of place to view the commandment about the bird in this way. Ecology and the recognition of the value of living nature occupy an enormous place in the Torah: even the original principles with which Adam was to settle in the garden have an environmental character: God placed Adam in the garden “to dress it and to keep it”  (Gen. 2:15). From whom, however, was Adam to “keep,” or protect it? Not from the snake, certainly, which could do nothing on its own, but from himself, Adam, who alone was capable of destroying the garden. Ecology is our defense of nature against the destructive actions of humans. At the same time, Judaism does not condone “radical environmentalism,” rejection of civilization, etc. The Torah commands us to “dress” (cultivate) the garden – to build civilization – even as we “keep” it.    

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