Would the real Rabbi Akiva please stand up?

Akiva today, in our eyes and understanding, is a legend who has become a reality

Rabbi Akiva (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Akiva
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WE ARE all indebted to Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s lucid and admirably documented contribution to the study of Rabbi Akiva.
“Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy” is extremely well written, a joy to read, and a rare opportunity to learn about the multi-dimensional personality of probably the greatest of the Tannaim (rabbinic sages). Hammer’s book evinces intensive, extensive, and meticulous research as he skill- fully draws together the multiple rabbinic sources like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in order to capture Rabbi Akiva and bring him to life. It is a remarkable and enlightening biography.
To all these plaudits I cannot but add the word “audacious.” I think there are very few who would deign to attempt such a study after several classics have been writ- ten on Rabbi Akiva, including those of two of Hammer’s very own respected and esteemed teachers. First is the late Prof. Louis Finkelstein’s encyclopedic “Akiba: Scholar, Saint and Martyr,” written in 1936, whose third printing, in paperback, appeared in 1978, which delineates each stage of Akiva’s life, accentuated by creative chapter headings heralding his adventurous life: In the Depths, Among the Foothills, On the Heights, A Perilous Summit, Approaching the Precipice, and The Apotheosis. Hammer’s intention, however, was not to produce an updated version of Finkelstein’s work; rather, he sought to wrestle with the reliability of all these sources in the light of modern scholarship. He attempts to weigh and evaluate sources, some of which were only recorded hundreds of years after Akiva’s death. He took upon himself, in an exemplary fashion, the task of sifting legend from history, fact from fiction, and life from legend in order to describe life colored by legend.
And, thus, we find in Hammer’s book a range of reservations and doubts regarding the authenticity of many traditions attributed to Akiva. After reading the volume, one feels like asking, “Would the real historical Akiva please stand up!” Akiva today, in our eyes and understanding, is a legend who has become a reality: t he shepherd who learned the alphabet with his son; the husband whose wife encouraged him to commence his studies upon reach- ing the age of 40; the one, who after some two decades returned as the wealthiest and learned of all the sages, rewarding his wife with a “Jerusalem of Gold”; the outstanding teacher with myriad students; the man of action and spokesperson for his people in Rome; the one of four who entered the pardes b’shalom ( the orchard in peace) and exited b’shalom ; the one who saved “Shir Hashirim” from geniza by describing it as the holiest book in the Bible; the one who remarked, “Everything is foreseen and per - mission is granted,” voicing the paradox of free will and providence; the master of both Halacha and Aggada; the one who collect- ed, arranged, preserved, and systematized the many unwritten traditions of the Rabbis up to his time; and the man who was imprisoned and tortured whose last words, while reciting the Shema, were, with all his soul, “even if He takes your life.” You can indeed read all these sources in Finkelstein’s volume, but Hammer not only cites them, he also objectively evaluates them.
I believe that Hammer’s task was also exacerbated by having to take into consideration Prof. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magisterial three-volume Hebrew work “Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations.” Heschel acutely and profoundly delineated two major schools of rabbinic thought personified by the only two figures in all of the Aggadic Rabbinic literature, who are called “Fathers of the World,” that is, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva. The former, Rabbi Ishmael, was the rational, critical, straightforward, lucid, lit- eral interpreter of Scripture who stripped the Bible of anthropomorphisms. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, viewed Scripture in a transcendent, mystical, esoteric, and apocalyptic manner, colored by a poetic spirit. Since everything in the Torah is writ- ten in divine language, it contains no extraneous word, letter, jot, or tittle. One should always expand, not confine, interpretation.
After these masterful works, I asked myself before reading his book, “Would Reuven Hammer be able to plough his own path and not merely repeat those of his venerable predecessors?” I am happy to say that he did, and very successfully at that. He skillfully and creatively integrated, molded afresh, and added his own insightful and prudent approach to the understanding of Rabbi Akiva. It was as though Hammer, too, had entered pardes and came out not only unscathed but even energized and fulfilled.
ALLOW ME to add my own personal reservation – neither with the content or structure of the book nor with Hammer’s superb research or fluent prose, but with the sober thought that came with his pertinent conclusions – so much so that what I, and may I add many of the readers, assumed to be historical fact, turned out to be legendary “history.” I am referring in particular to two major stories, one probably the most well known in the life of Rabbi Akiva and the other , which touches me personally. First, the account of his martyrdom, that with his final breath he expired while uttering the word echad (one): “When Rabbi Akiva was being led to execution, it was the time for the recitation of the Shema. They [the Romans] were combing his flesh with combs of iron while he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him, ‘Our master – even at this point?’ He said to them, ‘All my life I was troubled by this verse – “with all your soul,” even if someone takes your soul! I said, ‘When will this come to me and I will fulfill it?’ And now that it has come to me, shall I not fulfill it?!” He prolonged the word echad until his soul departed.
In Reuven Hammer’s words, “It is a much later literary creation glorifying martyrdom” (p. 171).
Second, readers may have heard of my discovery of a “Jerusalem of Gold” associated with Rabbi Akiva. It is reported that Akiva, in his youthful poverty, promised his wife Rachel (by the way, Hammer dedicated his book to his very own Rachel) that were he ever able to afford it, he would make her a gift of a “Jerusalem of Gold” – a promise that was eventually fulfilled, it is told, when he became very affluent toward the end of his life. My own study has shown that this was a descriptive term for a crown of gold in the form of a city wall, with its turrets and towers. So what is my reservation in this regard? The identification of the crown is correct, but many of the manifold anecdotes of Akiva’s life cited by Hammer now appear to be legendary – narratives I had taken at face value!
In sum: Hammer is to be heartily congratulated for producing yet another book to be added to his list of prodigious publications. Yet, when one reads extremely carefully, one will discover that Hammer, the theologian, scholar, and sober commentator on the momentous religious and political issues of our times and of the Conservative/ Masorti movement, could not but avoid, deftly and subtly, leaving his own indelible imprint on the conclusion of his research: “Akiva’s reinterpretation of Jewish law in light of current developments and needs remains an important principle for those who see Judaism changing and evolving with the times” (p. 183).
It is also available in Hebrew: “ Akiva: Haish, Haagadah, Hamoreshset” – Yedioth Books and The Schechter Institute – 253 pages, 2017, NIS 98, translated by Oded Peled.