It is an amazing but all too common phenomenon that two people can witness the same event and yet “see it” very differently. This is the simplest explanation as to why Jewish law requires two witnesses to convict someone in a court of law. No matter how honest and trustworthy a person may be, our inherent human biases—conscious or not—are such that we may only see part of the picture. However, if two people report seeing the same thing, our confidence that they have seen a complete picture greatly increases.
If biases are inevitable when one is reporting on what one saw, how much more so is this true regarding the interpretation of the data one sees? Here, the more people who witness an event, the more explanations we are likely to receive—something along the lines of “two Jews, three opinions”. And when one is dealing with religion, there is no limit to the number of views there might be.
The last piece of Gemara of Masechet Chulin (which at 141 double-sided pages is the third-longest of the Talmud), discusses the apostasy of Elisha ben Avuya, referred to as Acher, “the other”. This discussion concludes the last chapter of Chulin which deals with the mitzvah of shiluach hakan, the mitzvah to send away a mother bird before taking her young chicks or eggs. As is well known, the Torah promises that one who fulfills this mitzvah will be rewarded with long life.
Commenting on this, the Mishna (Chulin 142a) teaches that, “if by a mitzvah kalla, a light mitzvah, that [costs] but an issar, the Torah says, ‘that it should be good for you and you shall have length of days’ (Devarim 22:7), how much more so [will we merit length of days] for observing the heavy mitzvot?”
Undoubtedly one of the heavy mitzvot of the Torah is that of kivud av veim. So difficult is proper performance of this mitzvah that our Sages recommend that parents waive the honour due them. The Gemara notes that Rabbi Tarfon would wait by his mother’s bed so that when she awoke, she could rest her feet in his hands and not have to put them on the [cold] floor. Nonetheless, his colleagues told him that “You have not reached half of the honour due” to your mother (Kiddushin 31b). Regarding the mitzvah of kivud av v’eim, the Torah also promises long life, and being a most difficult mitzvah, presumably one will receive an even greater reward than the one promised for observing the mitzvah of shiluach hakan.
With the Torah’s promise of long life for both these mitzvot, there can be no greater guarantee for safety than doing the mitzvah of shiluach hakan at the behest of one’s parents. Nonetheless, Rav Yaakov interprets these verses as biblical reference to the World to Come. He feels that these verses cannot be talking about our world due to the potential scenario of a parent asking his child to go and bring back some chicks. Should the child find the mother sitting on the young birds and send her away, and then fall and die, “Where is the length of days for him, and where is the good life for him?” (Chulin 142a). It must be “that 'you shall have length of days' in the World that is entirely long, and 'that it may be well with you' in the World where all is good”.
Rav Yaakov’s rabbinic colleagues were unimpressed, and doubted such a scenario could actually occur. If the Torah promises a reward of long life, there is every reason to believe it means in this world. Are there longer and shorter lives in the World to Come? Would one claim that the Torah’s promise of the reward of rain is also for the World to Come?
Rav Yaakov, however, countered with the claim that he had witnessed such a tragedy. Reality forced him to re-interpret the Biblical text. Having witnessed a child dying having fulfilled these two mitzvot, we have little choice but to assert the verse is referring to the World to Come.
Yet the Rabbis were not convinced. It is true the Torah promises long life, but that does not mean one can defy nature. A promise of long life cannot be fulfilled if one walks across a busy highway. The promise is and remains true; but one can act to undo such. Thus, the rabbis offer possible explanations that would retain the simple meaning of the verse and account for the tragic death of the obedient child. Perhaps he was considering avodah zara—the one sin we are not even allowed to contemplate. The Gemara rejects that possibility, stating, “If there is reward in this world, it should be for this,” i.e., to protect against such thoughts. The Sages then speculate that perhaps he was using a broken ladder and thus negated any possible promised reward.
I find this discussion—even beyond its most serious (but ultimately unresolvable) subject matter—most fascinating. Rav Yaakov witnessed an event that brings into question a verse in the Chumash; he thus reinterprets the meaning of the verse. On the other hand, the Sages are determined to maintain the plain meaning of the text and are forced to try and explain away said event. One wonders if the rabbis would have reacted in the same manner had they actually witnessed such an event instead of just being told about it. As the rabbis teach, “One cannot compare hearing to seeing” (Mekhilta, Yitro, 19:9).
Yet sadly, there is a third possible reaction to this story. Commenting on this discussion, Rav Yosef notes that “had Acher interpreted the verse as Rav Yaakov...did, he would not have sinned”. Having witnessed a great tragedy, one the Torah seems to promise cannot happen, he was unable and unwilling to “square the circle”. Believing in the simple meaning of the Torah and having witnessed something that contradicts that meaning, he could no longer believe. Hence, when his dear student Rav Meir urged him to return, he said he could not, that he heard “from behind the curtain, i.e., a heavenly voice, that all can return—except Acher” (Chagigah 15a).
The Gemara then offers a second explanation for Acher’s apostasy: “He saw the tongue of Rabbi Chutzpit the Meturgaman, which was cast in a garbage dump.” Rav Chutzpit was the one who disseminated Torah to the masses, explaining the technical shiurim of Rabban Gamliel so that all could understand them. Yet this person who spread so much Torah was brutally murdered by the Romans, and his tongue—the same tongue that taught so much—thrown in the garbage.
Despite Acher’s apostasy, Elisha ben Avuya was too great a man and too tragic a figure to be lost to Jewish history. Thus, despite his heretical views, he remained close to his student Rav Meir; and Rav Meir remained close to him. As Rav Meir explained, he separated the good from the bad; “a Torah scholar, although he has sinned, his Torah is not made repulsive” (Chagigah 15b). And thus, the Sages quote his teachings in the Mishna (Avot 5:20).
And in a beautiful twist of irony, the Gemara notes that Rav Yaakov was none other than Acher’s grandson. While Acher may have been unable to believe, he seems to have inspired others to believe. Our Sages even entertain the possibility that he did, in fact, repent.
While some rabbis took a harsh stance against Acher, others were willing to be more forgiving. They seemed to understand that having witnessed in life what he did, it would be unfair to pass judgment. That should be left to the One who has promised to bring us to “the World that is all good and the World that is entirely long.”
 The Gemara, Chagigah 14b offers a third reason for his apostasy, namely, his entering “the Pardes”, the garden of esoteric divine teaching, a place that only Rabbi Akiva returned from unscathed.