I remember coming home from the library one night in Madison and a guy on my floor was tripping on LSD. Being a responsible sort, I was asked to sit with him while he traveled on his journey, which started at a Grateful Dead show at the Dane County Coliseum. (Talk about being "reduced to a cultural stereotype.") Hallucinogens never interested me--local beer seemed to do the trick--and at the time I was convinced of a run for office so refraining in general seemed a good position to take.
This guy was in someone's dorm room--not his own--and he was sweeping the rug over and over and over again with a broom. He claimed to be seeing particles of dust that no one else could see, not too exciting a "trip" if you ask me, but there you have it. A few of us were able to convince him to end his tidy tirade, take a seat, and listen to some music for a while until things resumed normal speed, which lasted a few more hours. We had a laugh about it the next day but I always had in the back of mind, God forbid, that horrifying headline of a college student, on a trip, convinced he can fly, taking off from a roof-top somewhere and meeting the pavement in a tragic, terrible end. That fate we escaped that night and the shared sense of responsibility is something I've never forgotten.
This story came to mind last night while beginning to frame the Wednesday night Torah study group's discussion of Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf. One of the source texts which served as an inspiration for the novel comes from the Talmud's tractate Hagigah and describes the Sages exploration of theosophy thus:
Our Rabbis taught: Four men entered the Garden, namely Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, say not, 'Water, water.' For it is said, 'He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes.' Ben Azzai cast a look and died. Of him scripture says, 'Precious in the sight of the Eternal is the death of his saints.' Ben Zoma looked and became demented. Of him scripture says, 'Have you found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for you, lest you be filled, and vomit it.' Aher mutilated the shoots. Rabbi Akiva departed unhurt.
On the simplest level--if one can utter those words about such a concise and disturbing tale--we generally understand the "Garden" to be the place of inquiry into the nature of God, the meaning of life, and the very causes and definitions of existence. That two die, one denies Torah, and only one emerges "unhurt" is the Sages classic object lesson on the inherent dangers of such inquiry. In the contemporary culture of the early rabbinic period, the Greek system of thought, of philosophy and mathematics, represented another journey into truth that clearly represented a potential threat to the cohesion of Jewish life. If only one in four could emerge whole, the implications were clear. Don't look--or, at the very least, proceed carefully with an able teacher and reach no conclusions on your own.
We talked about whether or not this was in part Steinberg's agenda, writing for his audience in the early mid-twentieth century--an assimilating class of American Jews, melding the process of Americanization and modernity with traditional forms of an Eastern European Judaism that was rapidly adapting to a new life in a new land. We often lose track in the paces of our own lives how completely disorienting the Americanization process was for an earlier generation and what can happen when the process gains control of an individual.
We see such concerns expressed with radical changes that overtake those who become newly religious, adopting a fundamentalist approach to their faith and identity that comes from the opposite direction (radical faith v. radical reason) but reaches the same end--a dangerous denial of what was for an embrace of an illusory, alternative reality.
On a recent walk home in the rain, I met a young student who was interested in developing avatars for the Sages. He asked me with remarkable fervor and excitement what I thought of the idea of being able to interact on-line with Rabbi Akiba in his sandles, walking around the Garden. Before I could answer he had quickly moved on to another topic, the flow of words mightier than the rain.
I never had a chance to respond.
But when I got home and put the kids to bed, I picked out a copy of Pirke Avot and under my favorite lamp, read from the book. I felt the paper, smelled the ink, celebrated the date of publication (1962) the layout, the choice of font (this was the Bloch edition, compiled by Hyman Goldin.)
This was enough--as it's always been.