Although this tale is somewhat wooden in execution and its characters never come fully to life, and while the thrust of the tale, itself, is an intellectual rather than a visceral one, I was greatly moved by it. There is a tradition in the Talmud that four great sages sought to go beyond the realm of man's knowledge. One died. One went insane. One became a heretic. And only the great Akiba came out of it whole, only to be tortured to death by the Romans in the aftermath of the third abortive rebellion against the Empire. Well, Elisha ben Abuyah, the central character of this tale, is the one who became a heretic. He is recalled in the Talmud as a member of the Rabbinate who forsook his faith and people for the Greek way, thereby condemning himself, in life and memory, to excommunication and the label of heretic. This tale attempts to visualize what might have driven such a man and where it would have taken him in the end. The actions of the story are really quite commonplace until one gets to the final Roman war against the Jews in Palestine. But even these events are seen only from a distance. The real crux of this tale is the seeking and the life-events which might have underlay the tale of Elisha and help explain why he did what he did. His is the tale of the child of a Hellenized father, wrested at his father's death from the larger, intellectual Greek world and shoe-horned into a realm of orthodoxy in keeping with the narrow prejudices of his deceased mother's brother. His Greek learning aborted, Elisha becomes an enthusiastic student of his people's traditions rising, in time, to membership in the revered Sanhedrin. But the Greek seeds (or something else) have been planted and in time take root, pushing out the superimposed shrubbery of orthodxy. And Elisha begins to doubt and question. Unable to reconcile his restless questioning to the blind teachings of orthodxy, he seeks wider knowledge, causing a rift with the community of the orthodox. Driven into exile in Antioch he begins a life of study and inquiry, trying always to use his reason to erect an edifice in which he can wholeheartedly believe. But events catch up with him even as his understanding increases. There is a very fine rendering here of that process by which we try to understand the underpinnings of the world in which we exist and one sees clearly the metaphysical problems and Elisha's burden in grappling with them. He does seem a bit simple at times and one can't help thinking that this, in some sense, is the author's own tale, writ into a fable about a first century Jew in the Roman world. But it's all very compelling and, at times, riveting, especially as it captures the hellenistic world and its thought. But it's a book of ideas, in the end, rather than people. Ideas which tear at all of us in the end.
Stuart W. Mirsky author of The King of Vinland's Saga
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Stuart W. Mirsky (swmirsky)
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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The magnificent work of modern fiction that brings the age of the Talmud to life. The characters include the well-known historical figures: Akiba, Yohanan, Joshua, Eleazar, Beruriah, and Elisha ben Abuyah, whose struggle to live in two worlds destroyed his chance to live in either. Foreword by Chaim Potok