One of the unique aspects of the Talmudic literature is that its characters know no physical or temporal bounds. Not only are they neither geographically nor temporally limited, but they also often seem to be multi-faceted: merging hard-nosed reality with idealism, patriotism with universalism, mysticism with what we would call scientific realities. In a sense, these bigger-than-life figures represent all of us.
None of us is consistent; all of us tend to live multifaceted lives. When we view our lives, we often see an integrated whole, but the outside observer might see our lives as a jumble of non-related contradictions — some of which might even be at cross-purposes.
We call this mixture of personal moments and events “life.” We view this world of contradictions in this month’s Talmudic biographical vignette, that of the life of the Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.
We know very little about ben Levi’s life, but what we do know paints a picture of a man whose life, like so many of our lives, resembled a rambling stream flowing through a river of time. Perhaps that is why his life still speaks to us today.
This is what we do know about him. Ben Levi lived during the time of the Roman occupation in the third century. He resided in the central Israeli city of Lod. The third century was a strange time in the history of the Roman Empire. With very few exceptions, third-century Rome lacked intellectual life or curiosity. The third century was one of political and military infighting, coupled with the pursuit of physical pleasures and beauty. In third-century Rome, few paid attention to the arts, creative thought and scientific discovery, but rather concentrated on their personal physical appearance and games.
The one great exception to this dearth of intellectual activity was in Israel. Only in Israel, despite the harshness of the Roman occupation, the academies flourish and learning dominated the land. This was the world in which ben Levi lived. The Talmudic literature tells us that he was charming, wealthy, politically powerful and pious. Others spoke about the fact that he was a generous host. Legends tell us that ben Levi served his guests lavish meals, yet despite his great wealth, he had the persona of being a simple and unpretentious man. As is the case with so many political figures, the people might have projected onto him what they wanted to see rather than what was. He was known as modest, simple and pious. Might he have been all of the above, or did people see what they wanted to see?
Due to his wealth and power, ben Levi became a representative of the nation before the Roman occupational authorities. Ben Levi was also a family man. He was a loyal husband, good father and doting grandfather.
His writings portray a man who was more rational than emotional, yet he was preoccupied with understanding and interpreting dreams. As is often the case, others saw ben Levi from a perspective different then from the way he saw himself. Despite the fact that ben Levi saw himself as highly rational, the public viewed him as a mystical figure. Does his life teaches us that public figures, like all of us, have many sides to a single life; that others may view us quite differently from the way we view ourselves? Was his life filled with contradictions or were these inconsistencies what made him human?
During the chaotic years of the Roman occupation, Yehoshua ben Levi earned the reputation of being a defender of the Jewish people. Ben Levi was the ultimate charismatic leader. He knew how to charm both his friends and political opponents. It is said that whenever he instituted public fasting and prayer, God answered his appeals. Perhaps his charisma came from being a brilliant storyteller, master of rhetoric and a Biblical scholar. Was it his insights or rhetoric that attracted the masses? Did the public see in him not what was but what others wanted him to be? Some called him a mystic, and many believed that he was in direct communication with Elijah the Prophet (Eliyahu ha’Navi). Others believed that he entered heaven alive and thus perhaps never died.
Rabbi ben Levi may have been famous and loved but as in the case of all Talmudic personages he also had his flaws. Perhaps his story is that of many politicians, one that is both universal and personal. His life story teaches us that none of us has everything and that no matter what we accomplish, there is more to do. His life also reminds us to be both understanding and cautious when it comes to political leaders. All people wear masks; we all see ourselves differently from the way others see us, and no matter how successful or powerful we might be in life, none of us is God.
Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.