Chagigah 15

The point of no return.

Today’s daf digs into the life of one of the most intriguing figures of the Talmud — Elisha Ben Abuya, also known as Aher, the Other. On yesterday’s page, we learned that a mystical journey ultimately led to his apostasy. So great was his betrayal of God and Judaism, he is usually not even referred to by name — a significant statement by a tradition that is fastidious about named attribution.

Ben Abuya is the Talmud’s best known heretic. He is also the vehicle through which the other rabbis can push boundaries and ask scary questions about belief and its borders. On today’s daf, we see Rabbi Meir, his student, ask a poignant question about compassion and teshuvah (repentance): Is there a point of no return?

Aher said to him (Rabbi Meir): Rabbi Akiva, your teacher, did not say so, but taught as follows: Just as golden and glass vessels have a remedy even when they have broken, so too a Torah scholar, although he has transgressed, has a remedy. 

Rabbi Meir said to him: If so, you too. Return from your ways.

He said to him: I have already heard the following declaration behind the dividing curtain: “Return, rebellious children,” (Jeremiah 3:22) — apart from Aher.

The ancient Japanese practice of kintsugi, using lacquer and/or gold pigment to piece together shattered vessels, is more than a means of repair — it is an art from. In recent years, it has been adapted into the language of self-help and wellness as a metaphor for embracing flaws and imperfections. It is fascinating to see echoes of the idea here in Rabbi Meir’s teaching from Rabbi Akiva: Golden and glass vessels have a remedy, even when they are broken.

Each year, leading up to and on the High Holy Days, we are taught the lesson that Rabbi Meir is imparting his former teacher: We are all sinners, we have all transgressed, and there is a way back — there is a remedy, a repair, a return. But Ben Abuya’s response is searingly painful. Yes, he says, I too have heard the lesson — I too can quote Jeremiah. But I am too far gone. Even God, he says, has rejected me.

The daf continues through a number of painful stories with the same message — Rabbi Meir preaches the lessons of teshuvah, and Ben Abuya continues to insist that he is barred from the process: Return, rebellious children — he quotes Jeremiah. And each time, he adds: Apart from Aher. 

After Ben Abuya’s death, and after that of his disciple, Rabbi Yohanan asks the question at the heart of this daf, and it is a scary one:

Can it be that there was one sage among us who left the path and we cannot save him? If we hold him by the hand, who will remove him from our protection; who?

Is there, Yohanan seems to ask, truly a point of no return? Are there people whose doubt, or even whose heresy, place them fully outside the pale, undeserving of divine love and acceptance? And what happens when those people are teachers of powerful Torah? What, if anything, can we learn from the transgressors and their transgressions, and how, if at all, can we guide them toward repair? Like the pots made even more beautiful after they are shattered and then repaired, isn’t there always enough gold in the world to make their stories beautiful again?

Read all of Chagigah 15 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 24th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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