Rabbi Akiva, born shortly after the birth of Jesus, is venerated in Judaism as one of the greatest rabbinic sages, although much of the stories about him are sketchy and wrapped in myth and mystery. This book purports to tell his story from the point of view of his wife Rachel.
According to what little history is known, Akiva was an illiterate shepherd working for one of the wealthiest men in Israel, Kalba Savua. On the morning that 19-year-old Rachel, Savua’s only daughter, was to be betrothed to Ishmael, the handsome and brilliant son of a priest, Rachel chanced to meet 38-year-old Akiva. She was so struck by his mind and character that she reneged on her betrothal and turned all her attention to Akiva. At first, she just taught him to read, and found to her delight that he read like no one else.
Judaism has always allowed for a multiplicity of voices in the interpretation of its laws and traditions, albeit with different “schools” having strong ideological bents. In the yeshivas, or institutes of learning where Jewish students study sacred texts, energetic participation is encouraged for interpretation and analysis. Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive: one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement. As reinforcement for this idea, a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures must contain only consonants, forcing the reader into a creative process by having to determine contextual connections and inflections. Thus, Jewish law grows from the constant creation and interpretation of texts.
Akiva was apparently especially adept at noticing the differences between the construction of words and at ascribing meaning to the letters and spaces. Rachel became determined that Akiva go to a yeshiva, and she sold her hair for the money to send him. As Brandes tells the story, Akiva was appalled that she “disfigured” herself:
“‘Why didn’t you marry Rabbi Ishmael’ he shouts.
‘I don’t want Rabbi Ishmael. I want Rabbi Akiva.. . . You will become Rabbi Akiva. . . . I have known it from the moment I first laid eyes on you….’”
He finally agrees, and promises never to return until he is “Rabbi” Akiva.
Rachel thus becomes “Agunah” – an abandoned woman shackled to a missing man. She is scorned by most of the rest of society. But through associates of rabbis at the yeshiva, she learns what is happening with Akiva, who doesn’t return for twelve years.
The historic Akiva lived after the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem and, as implied above, during the growth of the “Nazarene” movement. Nazarenes were those who follow the teachings of Jesus ben Joseph from Nazareth, later of course called Christians. In this period, there was a great deal of dissension among Jews. First was the ongoing antagonism between Jews and Romans and what was the best course of action for the Jews. Then there was disagreement over how to handle this new Nazarene sect that sprung from Judaism. And most importantly to this story, there was continuing tension from the conflict among the Jews in yeshivas between the oppositional teachings of different schools of thought.
Akiva became immensely popular. Rachel understood right away what made Akiva stand out as a teacher. Akiva tells her “God is in the Torah. I feel Him when I study more than I ever felt Him [before] . . . ” Rachel says to Akiva: “That is why the students flock to your classes. In the other sages’ classes they study laws, but in your classes they feel God.” [The Torah, or Jewish Written Law, consists of the five books of the Hebrew Bible said to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai and known more commonly to non-Jews as the “Old Testament.”]
Rabbi Akiva’s method of interpretation was called midrash, or inquiry. Another rabbi explained to Rachel: “In the past, the nation of Israel encountered God in the beit mikdash’, the House of Holiness, that is the Temple, ‘but now we encounter him in the beit midrash,’ the House of Inquiry.” Rabbi Akiva’s Torah was the Torah of renewal. The other rabbi averred to Rachel, “The nation of Israel is returning to Mount Sinai. Rabbi Akiva is giving us the Torah anew.”
The climax of the story comes when some of the main characters, including Akiva, enter “the Orchard,” or Paradise. This tale comes from the Aggadah, or the non-legalistic exegetical texts from rabinnic literature that incorporate folklore, hearsay, anecdotes, and practical advice, inter alia.
According to the Aggadah regarding the Orchard, four sages, including Rabbi Akiva, entered Paradise. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; one looked and became an apostate; and only Rabbi Akiva departed relatively intact. But he was not the same, and his belief in the place of God in their lives had radically altered, with profound repercussions for the Jewish people.
Discussion: While I enjoyed the stories of the early sages of Israel and insights into what lay behind different interpretations of the Talmud, I never felt like I understood any of the characters, not even Rachel. On the contrary, she seemed more like a plot device to illuminate the internecine struggles of the rabbis. I also felt that the author did not make a commitment on the side of either history or legend, so that supernatural elements were added to otherwise actual events without comment or explanation.
On the other hand, the story of Akiva’s encounter with God in the Orchard and what Akiva learned there makes an interesting contribution to the subject of theodicy. This is an attempt to answer the question of how the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent God is consistent with the existence of evil or suffering in the world.
Evaluation: In spite of my reservations, this novel provides a very interesting way to learn about Talmudic lore and about the response by Jewish leaders to the challenge of Christianity.
Published in English translation by Gefen Publishing House, 2017