Elisha's Apostasy: Reward and Punishment in Jewish Thought
Or Zarua congregants generally are avid learners, eager to grapple with
traditional and modern texts, from the Torah to the Talmud and beyond, that form
the religious and intellectual bedrock of Judaism. Some congregants are also
eager to share their learning with fellow members.
For more than a decade now at Or Zarua, congregant Marc Ashley has taught an
annual adult education course on several Sunday mornings between Pesach and
Shavuot. During this spring period leading up to the yearly commemoration of
the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the perfect time for contemplation
and introspection regarding our religious beliefs and practices, Ashley's course
has covered a variety of core theological, legal and historical issues. With a
recurring focus on the origins and authority of the Torah she'be'al peh (the
Oral Law in Judaism), we have examined wide-ranging issues including the
ideological foundations of denominational differences, parameters of Jewish
pluralism, reasons for the commandments, sources of authentic Jewish knowledge,
subjective dynamics of halakhic decision-making, and seminal historiography of
Does it make any sense to believe that God rewards virtue and penalizes misconduct?
In classical Jewish thought, God rewards the righteous and punishes sinners based on our performance of the commandments, But that notion of strict accountability flies in the face of reality. Good people sometimes suffer and bad people often thrive. God's allotment of reward and punishment can seem arbitrary. It is challenging to believe with confidence that divine justice actually flourishes in our world. If we possess free will to do good or evil, isn't God paying attention to our choices?
The clash between concept and reality can be jarring. The Talmud relates that Elisha ben Abuya, a respected rabbinic scholar, was led to apostasy when he witnessed a young boy fall to his death when climbing a ladder at his father's instruction to send away a mother bird before capturing the nestlings. While fulifilling two comandments the Torah expressly states will prolong our lives, this dutiful boy was deprived of life. In the face of this inexplicable tragedy, Elisha's religious faith was irrevocably shattered, leading to his notorious heresy.
This theological challenge still resonates today, particularly in the shadow of the Holocaust during which God's indifference to redical injustice seemed to reign. The unsettling disconnect between goodness and success can lead to religious doubt.
Please join us on four Sundays in April and May as congregant Marc Ashley leads his annual adult education course through a survey of Jewish thought on the important topic of reward and punishment. We'll survey classical Jewish texts and modern commentaries as we explore the continuing relevance of this provocative doctrine.
This year's course - which will meet at 10:00 am in the Library on the four Sundays April 23 & 30, and May 7 & 21 - will examine Jewish thought on the important topic of reward and punishment.
No prior knowledge of any kind is required for these annual adult education
courses. Please join us for stimulating discussions of crucial issues in Jewish
life, as together we help sustain and nourish a community of learners and
learning at Or Zarua.
Movie: "The Women's Balcony": Monday, August 14, at 8:00 pm
In the Belly of a Big Fish - Learning with Rabbi Bolton: Wednesday, August 16, at 7:00 pm
Annual T'shuvah Lecture by Rabbi Dr. Dov Weiss:
"Rabbinic Irreverence: Imagining a Repentant God": Sunday, September 24, at 6:00 pm