Thursday, February 14, 2013

Challenges to Elisha ben Abuyah's Faith

I started Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf.  The book is a fictional story about how the first-second century C.E. Jewish figure Elisha ben Abuyah became an apostate from Judaism.  See here to read my blog post about Elisha ben Abuyah.  A friend at Jewish Theological Seminary recommended this book to me a while back because it's about a person's struggle with faith.

The title of this book is based on Job 13:24-25, which states (in whatever version Steinberg is using): "Wherefor hidest Thou Thy face...Wilt Thou harass a driven leaf?"  I suppose that's one way to describe a faith struggle: longing for God's presence and being dismayed at God's absence, yet feeling as if God actually is present and is harassing you!  On the one hand, many of us have expectations of God, based on God's reputation as one who loves us and longs to bring us blessing and peace, and yet these expectations are often (not always, or even most of the time, but often) disappointed by real life.  On the other hand, while many of us would like to give up on our search for God, something keeps drawing us back to the search----it's like we're being harassed as a driven leaf!

What was challenging Elisha ben Abuyah's faith, according to this novel?  In my reading so far, a variety of factors were mentioned.  First, there was the claim by pagan philosophy that we could arrive at certain truths by reason, apart from divine revelation.  Of course, what pagan philosophy understood as reason is not totally the same as what many of us today regard as reasonable, for we know more today: what the ancients saw through a glass darkly, we see more fully.  And, while I'm tempted to say that a lot of pagan philosophy is mere assertion rather than reason----either a priori or empirically-based----I have to retract that after more reflection, for Plato and Aristotle did base a number of their propositions on what they observed, and the conclusions that they drew from that through reason.  They were doing the best that they could, with what they had at the time.  But, returning to the theme of reason and revelation, there was a sentiment among some that pagan philosophy had a solid foundation, whereas one accepted divine revelation through faith----which (in at least some sense) is accepting something without proof.  Did that make pagan philosophy better than the Torah?

Second, related to the first challenge, there was the issue of miracles.  In my reading so far, when people express skepticism about Judaism, they mention miracles: one guy doubts, for example, that the Red Sea parted.  The basis for this skepticism about miracles is Stoicism's claim that "nothing ever happens contrary to nature" (page 33).

Third, there was the historical context of Judaism in the first-second centuries C.E.  My latest reading is set in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.  A huge hit had been delivered to Jews' national pride, and perhaps even their belief that God cared for them and had a plan to restore them.  A number still believed and performed Jewish rituals, but some, such as Abuyah (Elisha's father), left the faith.  I'm not saying that Abuyah left the faith over what the Romans did in 70 C.E.----I don't know----but it does seem to be a pressure on Elisha's faith in the book.  There were philosophical attacks, and there were attacks that related to the situation of Israel in antiquity.

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