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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Elijah IV

Galilee Diary 280
April 9, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

I had always known that Elijah was an interesting and problematic character, at once a violent zealot and yet at the same time a bringer of good news, a reconciler, a peacemaker. In preparing for a tour of Mt. Carmel “In Elijah’s Footsteps,” I have discovered new and fascinating aspects of this figure, in both Jewish and non-Jewish traditions. Some of these discoveries have come from texts, and some from conversations with residents of Mt. Carmel - from a Jewish anthropologist to a Druze educator to a couple of Carmelite friars. It seems that Elijah, in his multiple identities, sits at some kind of folkloristic synapse, linking ancient pagan images, medieval legends, and modern religious belief.

Who is Elijah? According to one strand of midrash, he is the zealot Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron (Numbers 25:6-15). Another tradition highlights the many parallels between Elijah and Moses, as though the later prophet were some kind of shadow, or reincarnation, of the first. According to the New Testament he is John the Baptist (Matthew 11:13-14). According to the Moslems he is El Khader (The Green One). According to the Druze he is Abu Ibrahim or Abu Abass, a miraculous knight on horseback. And there are those who say that this redeeming rider is none other than St. George the dragon-slayer, who figures prominently in European and middle-eastern Christian folklore. Then, in 1844 in Persia, the founder of Baha’ism, the Bab, proclaimed himself Elijah returned. Years later his followers buried his remains on Mt. Carmel.

But wait, there’s more: one Carmelite historian believes that Elijah’s association with mountains is based on a connection to Helios, the Greek sun god, who is almost always depicted as riding in a fiery chariot. And this author points out that the Greek form of Elijah is Elias – only a vowel away from Helios. In the museum of Stella Maris monastery on the promontory of Mt. Carmel in Haifa is a fragment found on the site (the work of a previous occupant), of a large statue of Zeus Heliopolitanus. But then, there’s the fact that there was apparently a Greek cult of Herakles (Hercules), a half-man, half-god figure associated with the Phoenician god Melkart, whose shrines were often in sea-side caves. Herakles, it turns out, dying from donning a poisoned cloak, threw himself on a flaming funeral pyre and was rescued and taken up to heaven in a horse-drawn chariot by his father Zeus.

Mountains and caves, fire and water, justice and mercy, earth and heaven: Elijah seems to be the immortal go-between, linking worlds and cultures, past and future, the messy unredeemed reality with the utopian future when all will be reconciled, conflicts resolved, doubts put to rest. In seeking to understand the connection between the two “sides” of Elijah, the zealot who we fear to encounter and the messenger we long to meet, perhaps we can find an answer in his rejection of ambivalence. When he confronts the people gathered on Mt. Carmel, he demands (I Kings 18:21):

How long will you keep limping between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!

The Mishnah (Eduyot 8:7) discusses his role as the harbinger of redemption:

Rabbi Shimon says [Elijah will come] to resolve controversies; the majority of the rabbis say…he will come to bring peace to the world.

Perhaps Elijah’s message is that peace cannot be fudged, that reconciliation requires absolute honesty with ourselves, that only when we accede to his demand that we make up our minds about who we are and what we are really committed to – only then will the world be redeemed. But this is not so simple. The moral issues we confront – from abortion to capital punishment on the universal level, to how to deal with Hamas on the local level, don’t seem to lend themselves to solutions that are “intuitively obvious.” We know what is right and what is wrong – but we also know that other good, thoughtful people know just the opposite. If only God’s representative would sweep into town, in his chariot of fire, and put our doubts and hesitations and ambivalences to rest once and for all…

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