Hanukka and the Bar Kochba Revolt

Should we accept at face value the account of Akiva’s 24,000 students dying of plague as punishment for some esoteric moral failing?

Last month the notoriously irreverent television series The Jews Are Coming included a more sobering than humorous sketch satirizing Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef as he rallied his hapless troops to rebel against Rome.
Of course, in reality the rebel forces under Bar Kochba were not quite the bunch of innocents huddling in a cave as portrayed in the sketch – they were armed, well organized and highly effective in battle. Before their defeat by a massive Roman army drawn from the length and breadth of the empire, Bar Kochba’s army succeeded in destroying an entire legion (the XXII Deiotariana based in Alexandria) and driving the Romans out of Judea.
While ignoring these inconvenient facts, the sketch – conceived in the extreme bad taste that distinguishes the best comedy (think Monty Python) – was nonetheless courageous in raising one of the most disturbing and most avoided questions regarding our historical narrative.
With the immense authority Akiva enjoyed as the elder sage of the Jewish commonwealth, it was clear that his endorsement of rebellion against Rome would be the necessary and decisive factor in its prosecution. As pointed out so poignantly at the end of the Jews are Coming sketch, a thousand villages were razed and an estimated 580,000 Jews were killed. On top of that the province lost its name (Judea was from then on known as Syria Palaestina), the Jewish sages were hunted down and killed and years of violent religious persecution followed.
And yet within the Jewish oral tradition – kept alive by Akiva and his students whose efforts were ultimately codified in the Mishnah – Akiva’s responsibility for the debacle that finally sent the Jewish People into their ultimate exile is not subject to discussion. We do know that Akiva paid for his decision with an extraordinarily painful death, delivering one of the greatest declarations of faith in human history as he expired.
The Torah and Prophets are unique among the annals of ancient civilizations, in that they pull no punches in exposing the misdeeds of Israel’s temporal and spiritual leaders. Even David, the prototype of the Messiah King, is not spared condemnation for human errors that carried serious repercussions for the nation. So why was Akiva spared the judgment of history for his role in the rebellion, and what did in fact go wrong? In 132 CE the Roman emperor Hadrian announced his intention to build a pagan city on the site of Jerusalem with a temple to Jupiter in its holiest precincts, and may have revived an earlier prohibition against genital mutilation which would have included circumcision. Though the latter has not been conclusively proven, it reflects the imperial hostility toward Judaism that would eventually culminate in the brutal Hadrianic shmad.
Facing the potential destruction of Jewish life and the desecration of its most sacred site, Akiva would have been faced with the relatively recent example of the Maccabees, long institutionalized in the celebration of Hanukka, which celebrates the victory of the weak against the strong, the few against the many, the pure against the impure, the righteous against the evil, and those engaged in Torah against the evildoers.
It would have been impossible to ignore the uncompromising principles commemorated in what would become one of Judaism’s most enduring religious holidays, and to avoid applying them to the current situation. How could he and his generation fail to live up to the standard set by their forbears? With the national salvation of Hanukka came the historic responsibility to maintain courage and resist the evil decrees.
As things turned out, the failure of the rebellion was so damaging to the national narrative of faith triumphant that the sages had no recourse but to implicate Bar Kochba himself. From fantastic tales like forcing his troops to prove their courage by cutting off their own thumbs – a patent violation of the Torah for which he would have certainly lost Akiva’s support – to the questionable tale of Bar Kochba kicking his uncle to death on the word of a suspicious Samaritan – suspicious, because evil Samaritans are a recurring theme in Talmudic tales of national danger or disaster – the conclusion conveyed is that Akiva’s trust in Bar Kochba was betrayed, and the blame must fall squarely on the false messiah who deceived the nation.
During my own research on this period for a screenplay about Bar Kochba, I had several conversations with one of the world’s leading authorities on Jewish history during the Talmudic period. Among the things we discussed were the question of authenticity when creating historical fiction based on Talmudic sources, and the authenticity of the Talmud itself as an historical source. He was candid about the sages’ attitude toward historical narrative, maintaining that they were less interested in objective facts than they were in advancing spiritual ideas and lessons, and were not above engaging in propaganda to promote their agendas.
For example, should we accept at face value the account of Akiva’s 24,000 students dying of plague as punishment for some esoteric moral failing? The declaration of a “Mitzvah War” would have halachically obligated all able-bodied men to take arms, making it more likely that they died defending Betar. If such a plague actually occurred before the war, how could Akiva have persevered in the face of such explicit Divine wrath? Why would the people continue to respect the spiritual teacher of an entire generation of scholars condemned as irretrievably corrupt in the eyes of God? Did the Talmud intentionally conceal the participation in the rebellion of the pure, the righteous and the Torah-observant that – according to the Hannukah formula – should have guaranteed their success? In any case Akiva is exonerated – both for the war and the plague – and is in fact regarded as the chief victim of Bar Kochba’s shortcomings as a messiah. And yet why such a severe collective punishment for the sins of one man? The Jewish population could hardly be blamed for believing in Bar Kochba, when Akiva himself was taken in, and effectively required the nation to obey the rebel leader as a king.
Students of Jewish history well know that the leadership of the Maccabean revolt very quickly betrayed the trust bestowed on them as protectors of the Jewish faith by usurping the monarchy from the House of David. Yet this did not prevent the Maccabean revolt from not only succeeding but exemplifying the struggle of the faithful against their oppressors. So where is the logic in condemning the entire nation to destruction and exile when they are fighting for the same principles with the same faith and courage? The sages were compelled to respond to this dilemma in the way that they did because in their worldview it was impossible to invalidate Akiva’s choice. When the sanctity of the Temple and Jewish continuity were at stake, Akiva drew the only conclusion consistent with our celebration of Hanukka.
And yet the facile character assassination of Bar Kochba is a remarkably weak response to a national catastrophe of this magnitude. The success of the Maccabees and the failure of Bar Kochba cannot be explained away so easily, and so pose a serious challenge to our national spiritual narrative. With the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in Israel, and the increasing internal and international hostility toward our self-identification as a Jewish state, reconciling this historic contradiction is no less than an existential necessity.
The writer is the author of Akiva, a television mini-series on the life and times of Rabbi Akiva ben-Yosef, and Starchild – the Legend of Bar Kochba, a feature film on the origins and rise of Shimon Bar Kochba. Parties interested in producing