Books: Leaving a legacy

Reuven Hammer’s new work on Rabbi Akiva separates wheat from chaff on life of rabbinic giant.

Rabbi Akiva (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Akiva
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Akiva ben Yosef’s decision to turn his life around 180 degrees – from an ignorant middle- aged man to one of the most learned and beloved rabbis – continues to inspire and sway generations.
Yet how much of what the average Jewish reader knows about Rabbi Akiva is actually “Torah from Sinai”? How many can give a detailed chronology of Akiva’s life and major accomplishments? Despite the “Jewish Studies/Biography” tag on the back of the dustcover of Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s new work, Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, it is clear that no biographer will ever be able to document the first-century scholar’s life in a linear fashion, or in a manner the modern reader is used to.
Hammer writes in his preface that the reliability of rabbinical texts will forever be challenged, with some scholars even arguing that nothing can be known with absolute certainty about any of the rabbinic figures. This work isn’t meant to tell a life story or to give the reader a time line.
Hammer isn’t taking the approach of a historian. He’s here to give context to the life of one of the greatest Tannaim.
The former director and dean of the Jerusalem branch of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Hammer makes this clear in his introduction and doesn’t stray from this objective throughout. Making the jump from early tannaitic sources to late talmudic and aggadic sources, the author separates the wheat from the chaff, what is truth and what is myth, what is history and what is legend, and most importantly, what it is the reader can learn from the precise decisions the sages made on which facts to include, embellish or leave out altogether in their compilation of rabbinic texts.
Hammer, who has written a weekly column in The Jerusalem Post since the late 2000s, has followed in the footsteps of his mentor and teacher, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein. Finkelstein, also a leading figure in the Conservative Movement, published the first extensive book in English on Akiva in 1935. But, as Hammer points out, Finkelstein’s work was a comprehensive and encyclopedic integration of all the sources, whereas Hammer picks his sources carefully, focusing on only certain aspects of his life.
For those who grew up with a pocketful of tales on the great sage, the reader may come out with a different picture of him, but it will be a more honest and straightforward one.
Hammer makes the point that debunking the myths about Akiva does not detract from his legacy in the role of shaping rabbinic Judaism. While the legends may not be completely factual, by breaking them down, the reader can learn what these stories were intended to achieve.
How important is it that Akiva may not have turned his life around to become a sage precisely at the age of 40? Or that he may not have died at the age of 120, just as Moses did? Is it critical to define how many students he had – 12,000, 24,000 or 48,000? Even the most devout Jews don’t take everything written in the midrashim and the two Talmuds at face value. And rightly so. As Hammer leads the reader up the rabbinical watchtower, the bird’s-eye view shows that the Babylonian Talmud contradicts the Jerusalem Talmud, which in turn repudiates the Avot de Rabbi Natan midrash, which in turn disputes the writings of the Sifre, and so on and so forth.
The author’s extensive research goes a long way in helping decipher who Akiva really was and what part he played in the history of the Jewish people in the first and second centuries.
Though commonly regarded as the religious leader of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, Akiva actually played a very small role, if any, in leading Shimon Bar-Kosiva and his men. Other than proclaiming that Bar-Kochba was the Messiah, “there is not a shred of evidence that Akiva joined Bar-Kochba’s troops or advised him in any way,” Hammer says.
Akiva was a dreamer, always reminding himself and his colleagues, via biblical passages, of the impending redemption.
But he was no general.
At times, Hammer’s scholarly work deviates from straightforward conclusions, taking major jumps and making far-reaching assumptions.
In one instance, the author introduces Akiva’s belief in the divine as a God who is personal and loving, merciful and just, expressing emotions. He then writes: “We do not know if Akiva accepted the idea of God having a body, a notion that was certainly prevalent in ancient Israel and in mystical circles. He often stressed the idea that humans were created in ‘the image of God,’ which may have suggested that God did have a physical form similar to that of humans. Akiva believed that God certainly had physical manifestations and that one could experience being in God’s presence if one knew the proper mystical ways, but it is unclear if this meant actually seeing God, something that various midrashim ascribe to figures in the Bible.”
Those who have studied Akiva’s works are aware that this could not be true of his beliefs. If so, all that he had studied and taught and contributed to rabbinic literature would have been relegated to the dustheap of false messiahs and agnostic sects.
This well-written, extensively researched and enlightening work is a must for those willing and wanting to understand that the major foundations of Halacha and Rabbinic Judaism and of those who contributed to and compiled these works – in whose development Akiva played a crucial part – were not in a vacuum of pure religious observance but were influenced by national, social and personal factors.
With this new work, readers will be able to move past the coarse legends and refine their understanding of Akiva’s true characteristics, which turned this seemingly simple man into a rabbinical giant, and make his achievements still relevant to this day.