The Other — and us
Reform synagogues join in Shabbaton to consider big questions — and to celebrate
Athens or Jerusalem? Hellenization or Hebraism?
That’s a choice that has split Jews since at least the beginning of the rabbinic period, from the first century of the common era through to about the sixth, and it continues to bedevil us today. Every historic period comes up with its own version of the split, but the basic one — science versus faith, to put it with unpoetic, non-evocative bluntness — still is with us.
That’s the basic divide that the Shabbaton that three local Reform synagogues — Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, Temple Emeth in Teaneck, and Temple Sinai in Tenafly — are joining to explore next Shabbat morning. (See below.) It’s a collaboration between the communities and their rabbis — Barry Schwartz of Adas Emuno, Steven Sirbu of Emeth, and Jordan Millstein of Sinai.
The Shabbaton — to be held at Sinai, which has enough space to hold everyone — will examine that question. It will begin with a talk by Professor Jeffrey L. Rubenstein of NYU, the Talmudist who will be able to walk from his home in Englewood to talk about “Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah: History and Myth.”
In the evening — after services, a second talk by Dr. Rubenstein, lunch, and then, later, Havdalah, and dessert — the second performance of Rabbi Barry Schwartz’s play, an adaptation of Milton Steinberg’s “As a Driven Leaf,” will be given a stage reading by actors directed by Michael Bias of Teaneck.
All of this comes together logically — and perhaps to speak directly to the point, spiritually and emotionally as well — given that the protagonist of Rabbi Steinberg’s novel, his only completed work of fiction, is Elisha Ben Abuyah, the “Acher.” The Other. The great heretic of the Talmud, at least retrospectively, whose story has been told, reinterpreted, interpreted again, and told yet again. One of those retelling was in “As a Driven Leaf.” The long novel, first published in 1939, has never gone out of print; it continues to be popular, particularly but not only among young Jews today.
Another theme, this one accidental, is driving the Shabbaton. It originally was planned for almost exactly three years ago, in March 2020. “And then boom! The world changed,” Rabbi Schwartz said. The pandemic closed the world and foreclosed the celebration. “We are so pleased and happy to be able to do it now.”
He wrote the play in 2014, in commemoration of the book’s 75th anniversary, and it was produced at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the monumental synagogue where rabbis graduating from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York are ordained. That’s where Rabbi Schwartz got smicha, in 1981. “We had a newborn baby then, our oldest son, who came to that ordination with his mother” — his wife, Debbie Schwartz — “as an infant,” Rabbi Schwartz said. His son’s 41 years old now. So the full-circle-ness of his play’s premiere — it was performed by a group of actors called Instant Shakespeare — “was really beautiful,” he said.
Rabbi Schwartz has just retired as director of the Jewish Publication Society — he’s director emeritus now. He’s led both JPS and Adas Emuno for decades, pre-pandemic as a commuter to Philadelphia, more recently remotely, but now he plans on devoting more of the time he can spare from shul to writing. He’s written a number of books — his most recent, “Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Nonbelievers, and Agnostics,” is due out in July. But so far “As A Driven Leaf” is his only play.
This time, the play will be performed, as a staged reading, by local professional actors. It’s “made possible by a special fund at my synagogue established by my mother in memory of my father,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “He was able to attend the performance at Temple Emanu-El, but he’s not with us anymore. So my mother, Barbara Schwartz, established the Rudy Schwartz Scholar in Residence fund.” Ms. Schwartz moved from Cherry Hill to Teaneck last year, and “she’s an active member of my synagogue these days,” Rabbi Schwartz said.
The play is in three acts, he continued. “Act I takes place in Israel and begins with ordination of Elisha Ben Abuyah, and immediately brings us into some of his personal and political conflicts.” The Jews’ second war with Rome, in the second century of the common era, is about to begin; Elisha’s relationships with his disciple Rabbi Meir and Meir’s wife, Bruriah — both of them major talmudic figures — also drive the plot, as does his refusal to join the radical right in planning armed rebellion against Rome. “In the spirit of his mentor Yochanan ben Zakkai, Elisha wants accommodation,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “Part of this is the question of how you view the non-Jewish world. Some want to create a wall, and others want to be part of that world. This is part of the great conflict between Rome and Jerusalem, or Athens and Jerusalem.”
Act I ends in a “traumatic break when Elisha allegedly commits heresy, in the wake of a tragic incident involving the children of Bruriah and Meir,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “All this is based on nuggets of information in the Talmud.”
In Act II, Elisha has fled to Antioch. The play examines “his experiences in the non-Jewish world.” In Act III, he’s back in Israel; the play ends “in Greek tragedy, even as it embraces some timeless themes,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “The life of Elisha Ben Abuyah was tragic. You can’t invent a happy ending.”
But “he was too brilliant for his name to be erased,” Rabbi Schwartz continued. “His story is maintained in bits and pieces, including his heresy.” But the memory is so bitter that he’s not mentioned by name but by function, as the Acher. “That’s what intrigued Milton Steinberg,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “There is nobody else even close to Elisha the heretic rabbi, who nevertheless still has his place in the Talmud.”
The play is not a political debate. It’s got personalities, romantic and other entanglements, and a plot. But there is a philosophical issue at its heart — the tension between science and faith, and between acculturating, in various degrees, to the outside world and remaining true to a fiercely guarded boundary keeping that world out.
It’s a tension that never goes away, but it’s particularly strong now, Rabbi Schwartz said. “There are elements of the three major Western religions that have a very fundamentalist view of the world and attempt to shut out competing philosophies. That leads to very difficult politics.
“Each of the religions has wrestled with reformation, with how much can we admit from the outside world? I would argue that Judaism is the most open of the three. With Christianity, it depends on which Christianity you’re looking at. And the failure of a true reformation within Islam is at the heart of a great many problems today.
“Islam has had tremendous struggles with modernity, and fundamentalist Islam is a major problem throughout the world today. All three of the religions have struggled with faith and reason, and how much to evolve when you claim that there are absolute truths and no change is possible.
“That is the hallmark of true belief, but belief can change into zealotry.”
That’s visible in both the United States, as the culture wars here rage, and in Israel.
As the Jewish state approaches its 75th birthday, Rabbi Schwartz said, “there is a tremendous amount to celebrate there.
“But — and I say this as someone who holds dual citizenship, in the United States and in Israel, and who has lived and served in Israel as well as in America, what we term as culture wars here are playing out there as well.
“The political problems there have philosophical underpinnings. It’s a textbook clash of worldviews.” On one side, “there are the principles of liberalism that have become very dear to so many people — egalitarianism, inclusion. On the other, there has always been a group on the nationalist right that would prefer a state that is more Jewish than it is democratic, that is guided by halacha rather than by civil law. Those with a vision of Greater Israel take their highest truths from Torah and revelation rather than through reason.
“It has been one of the fault lines that have run through the country since it was created, and now these competing visons are playing out right before our eyes.
“The big question is whether we are going to be a pluralistic society or not. That’s true in Israel, and even in this country. If we are going to be pluralistic, then we have to embrace a spectrum of viewpoints — the ones we agree with and the ones we don’t agree with.”
Dr. Rubenstein is the Skirball professor of Talmud and rabbinic literature at NYU’s department of Hebrew and Judaic studies. His 2018 book, “The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings” looks at aggadah in the Talmud. Those are the stories — often wild, illogical, hallucinatory, insightful, funny, and all-around surprising — that are marbled through the generally more sober legal sections.
He plans to talk about Elisha Ben Abuyah, a man about whom very little is known, but about whom many legends have accreted.
Our historical understanding starts with the “original sources from the Mishna and Tosefta, from around 200 C.E.,” he said. “That’s as close as we can get to the historical Ben Abuyah, who would have died somewhere between 60 and 140. We know that only because his contemporaries, Akiba and Meir, lived around that time.” But we know very little about him. “Even the earliest rabbinic traditions, which are as close to the historical figure as you can get, come from a couple of generations after his life.”
Those stories “do associate him with some sort of esoteric study, and unfortunately, something went bad. But the stories about him that ‘As a Driven Leaf’ are based on come from hundreds of years later. There are two long stories about him, one in the Yerushalmi” — the Jerusalem Talmud — and the other in the Bavli” — the Babylonian Talmud. “Those stories are much later interpretations of the earlier sources. And it’s very clear that even at that time, the fourth through sixth centuries, the rabbis of that time had no tradition of the real Elisha Ben Abuyah. They were trying to make sense of the earlier tradition.
“Milton Steinberg reinterpreted these stories. He was very knowledgeable. He had a vast understanding of talmudic traditions.”
Rabbi Dr. Milton Steinberg, who was born in 1903 and died suddenly in 1950, was a classical scholar, ordained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, active in the movement and in the nascent Reconstructionist movement as well. When he died, he was the rabbi of arguably the Conservative movement’s most iconic synagogues, Park Avenue. He was formidably well-educated and creative, and had a shining future predicted for him. His death at 46 was felt as a huge shock and loss to the Jewish world in general.
And he undertook to bring the reverberations of the story of Elisha Ben Abuyah, with the timeless dilemma that undergirds it, into the consciousness of the modern world.
“Steinberg incorporated the stories of Ben Abuyah and hundreds of other stories that had nothing to do with him and wove it all into a narrative that is about modern times,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “It is about the crisis of modernity, but it goes back to the Enlightenment and the Jewish Enlightenment. By the end of the 19th century, already Elisha Ben Abuyah was a figure who started intriguing scholars of Jewish history and culture.”
But they didn’t as much reanimate him as they did recreate him. He was a figure with an intriguing legend but no fixed history who presented an inviting blank canvas to Jews looking for someone to paint in their newly developing images. “People then were starting to lose faith,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “So they reinvented him as an ancient precedent, even though the talmudic precedent seemed to go in a very different direction.”
Although much about the world has changed in the 84 years since “As a Driven Leaf” was published, “there’s still pretty much the same interest in it as there was then,” Dr. Rubenstein said. “We haven’t resolved the conflict between modernity and tradition, although the focus of the interest may have shifted. Steinberg was influenced by Mordecai Kaplan,” the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. “You might say that the tension between Kaplan’s lack of belief in a personal God and how that stood in tension with traditional Jewish faith in revelation was the main tension then. Today it might not be that per se, but more the tension between the general scientific understanding of the world and our progressive understanding of the laws of nature as they continue to remove the spiritual or the Divine from the world.”
Dr. Rubenstein will discuss that and much more, Rabbi Schwartz will present his play, and everyone at the Shabbaton will have much to think about and to celebrate on April 1.
Who: Congregation Adas Emuno, Temple Emeth, and Temple Sinai join for a Shabbaton
Where: At Temple Sinai, 1 Engle Street, Tenafly
When: On Saturday, April 1, from study at 9 a.m. until a lunch and learn at noon; and then again at 7:30 p.m., with a staged reading of “As a Driven Leaf” and dessert. The day includes two talks by Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein; services will be led by the rabbis, Adas Emuno’s cantorial student, Joseph Flaxman, and his predecessor, cantorial student Iris Karlin. “They are so special; they have been bright lights,” Rabbi Schwartz said.
And also: It’s open to the public but reservations are necessary. Email [email protected] or call (201) 568-3035.