Elisha Ben Abuya and Socrates: Parallel Stories in Rabbinic and Platonic Literatures

I think I might have found the most remarkable thing: a parallel between the stories of Socrates, the Greek, and Elisha Ben Abuya, the Jew.
That there is an intellectual similarity between Plato and Rabbinic Judaism is nothing new: academics have been reflecting on the similarities between Rabbinic pronouncements and Platonic statements for over two millennia–Philo of Alexandria had noted as much in before the common era (as it’s called for some reason) even began.
One of the greatest treasure troves for finding these similarities has been the stories of the lives of the Sages themselves, and specifically those that seem to have to do with the mystical tradition. The most well-known of these is the story of the Pardes.


The story of the four rabbis who entered the Pardes, or Orchard, is rife with symbolism due to its purposeful murkiness of language–one that has been compared to Plato’s Republic Such comparisons have been inconclusive, however, since they rest on assumption that Gnostic-like thought–the idea of two Gods–is a Greek import, and not an internal development within Judaism.
My research, however, found a much stronger connection–and, after running my findings by a few professors who specialize in this field, such as Prof. Seth Schwartz and Prof. Motti Arad at the Jewish Theological Seminary(both of which had never heard of what I found being remarked upon before), and Prof. James Zetzel of Columbia–I’m pretty much convinced that it is the strongest connection between the two worlds I’ve come across thus far.
In the Tosefta of the Tractate of Haggigah, which is arguably the oldest surviving account of the early generation of Rabbis known as the Tanaaim, we read the following:

ב ארבעה נכנסו לפרדס בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבה אחד הציץ ומת אחד הציץ ונפגע אחד הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות ואחד עלה בשלום וירד בשלום בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר (תהילים קטו) יקר בעיני ה’ המותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע עליו הכתוב אומר (משלי כה) דבש מצאת אכול דייך [וגו’] אלישע הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות עליו הכתוב אומר (קוהלת ה) אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשרך וגו’ רבי עקיבה עלה בשלום וירד בשלום עליו הכתוב אומר (שיר השירים א) משכני אחריך נרוצה [וגו’]

Or, in a translation,

Four entered the PardesBen ‘Azzai, Ben Zoma, the Other, and Akiva. One gazed and perished, one gazed and was smitten, one gazed and cut down to the sprouts, and one went up whole and came down whole. Ben ‘Azzai gazed and perished. Concerning him Scripture says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints (Ps 116:15).” Ben Zoma gazed and was smitten. About him Scripture says, “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you be sated with it and vomit it (Prov 25:16).” Elisha gazed and cut down shoots. About him Scripture says, “Let not your mouth lead you into sin (Quoh 5:5)”.[emphasis mine]

The formulation of Elisha, or “the Other”‘s, crime has puzzled the rabbis and commentators throughout the ages. What does it mean to “cut down the shoots?”
Enter Plato. In the Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates is speaking with Euthyphro, who asks him:

Euth. Then some one else has been prosecuting you?
Soc. Yes.
Euth. And who is he?
Soc. A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.
Euth. No, I do not remember him, Socrates. But what is the charge which he brings against you?
Soc. What is the charge? Well, a very serious charge, which shows a good deal of character in the young man, and for which he is certainly not to be despised. He says he knows how the youth are corrupted and who are their corruptors. I fancy that he must be a wise man, and seeing that I am the reverse of a wise man, he has found me out, and is going to accuse me of corrupting his young friends. And of this our mother the state is to be the judge. Of all our political men he is the only one who seems to me to begin in the right way, with the cultivation of virtue in youth; like a good husbandman, he makes the young shoots his first care, and clears away us who are the destroyers of them. This is only the first step; he will afterwards attend to the elder branches; and if he goes on as he has begun, he will be a very great public benefactor.
Euth. I hope that he may; but I rather fear, Socrates, that the opposite will turn out to be the truth. My opinion is that in attacking you he is simply aiming a blow at the foundation of the state. But in what way does he say that you corrupt the young?
Soc. He brings a wonderful accusation against me, which at first hearing excites surprise: he says that I am a poet or maker of gods, and that I invent new gods and deny the existence of old ones; this is the ground of his indictment. [emphasis mine]

Even with this relatively poor translation, the parallels are immediately apparent: Elisha Ben Abuya and Socrates are being charged with the same thing, that is, to quote the verse from Quohelet brought in about Elisha, allowing their mouths to lead them to sin. Since we know that the Platonic dialogue pre-dated this Rabbinic story, and since we are sure that the Rabbis spoke and read Greek–as evidenced by the vast Greek vocabulary integrated into their theological discussions–we can safely assume that the Rabbis were literally quoting from the Euthyphro dialogue when explaining why it was the Elisha Ben Abuya, once a promising young rabbi, was excommunicated.
Why would they do that? I think it is because they wanted, on one hand, to tell others ‘in the know’ what drove the leadership to excommunicate Elisha, but, on the other hand, did not want to encourage those who were not ‘in the know’ to study Greek texts. Thus, the Sages coded the quotation and incorporated the very language of Euthyphro into a general story chronicling the disintegration of a generation of leading Sages.
The academic part of this finding ends here. If you know of any source that goes into this parallel, please tell me, since I have yet to find one that does.
Now to the wisdom of the story: I think we can learn something from the way the story was constructed, namely that the Sages were struggling with the same problems of assimilation that we are dealing with today. Elisha Ben Abuya, with his Platonic philosophy, became an assimilated Jew. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, went up in peace and came down in peace–because he assimilated the Greek wisdom into his frame of reference, as opposed to Elisha who assimilated into the Greek frame of reference. Thus, while one can take away from this episode–as the Rabbis did–that the non-Jewish philosophical world is to be avoided (they banned Greek writings shortly thereafter), I believe one can also take away from this story that one can encounter Greek or Western wisdom and come back in peace, as didi Akiva. All it takes is a secure frame of reference.

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