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Rebbi Akiva Loser or Winner?

Rebbi Akiva, born in 50 CE, was one of the greatest rabbis of the Talmud. He was also one of the most controversial. Against the opinion of most of his colleagues he supported the Bar Cochba revolution against Rome  in 132 CE and thought that Bar Cochba was the Messiah. He ended up being tortured to death by the Romans. Today there is a memorial, some say a grave, to him in Tiberius.

There are so many references, decisions, stories and fables in the Talmud about Akiva. This is the famous one about his rise to fame.

The Talmud tells his story.

Rebbi Akiva was the shepherd of ben Kalba Savua, one of the wealthy residents of Jerusalem. His daughter saw that Akiva was humble and refined. She said to him, “If I marry you, will you go to the study hall ?” He agreed, they married him secretly and she sent him to study. When her father heard he took a vow to cut her off for ever. Akiva went and studied for twelve years. When he came back, he brought twelve thousand students with him, he heard an old man saying to his wife: For how long (63) will you lead the life of a widow?  She said to him “If he would listen to me, he would sit and study for another twelve years.” When Rabbi Akiva heard this he said, “I have permission.” He went back and studied for another twelve years. When he returned, he brought twenty-four thousand students with him. His wife heard and went out  to greet him. When she came to him, she fell on her face and kissed his feet. His students, not knowing who she was,  tried to push her away. He said to them “Leave her alone, as all my Torah knowledge and yours is actually hers.” And happily the father relented and canceled his vow ( TB.Ketuvot 62b-63a).

But I want to focus on one theological issue. That of human life, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Here are some examples of his most popular opinions. They give you a much fuller picture of a man who was a great humanitarian and universalist. While still believing in the necessity of fighting for one’s physical and spiritual self-defense even if at the cost of human life.

Rebbi Akiva said

“All of humanity is beloved of God for all humans were created in the image of God” (Avot 3:18).

Although he goes on to describe the additional uniqueness of Israel, he opens with a universal idea which was expanded in another well-known text of his.

“ Rebbi Akiva said “What is the most important principle in the Torah that all other laws can be derived from? “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” (Leviticus. 19:18). Ben Azai said “ This is the story of all mankind ” (Genesis 5:1). ( Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4:3 et al).

They are both saying that humanity comes first. Some like to suggest that the difference between the two is that one’s neighbor means someone who shares your values while Ben Azai is referring to all humans regardless. But to me it reads that both care about humanity equally. It is simply a personal preference for different texts.

Another controversial opinion of Akiva is the very famous case in deciding priorities in human life.

Two people were walking on a journey in a desert, and in the hand of one of them was a flask of water. If both of them drink, they will both die, but if one of them drinks all the water, that person will reach civilization and live. Ben Petura said, “It is better that both of them drink and die, rather than one of them seeing the death of the other.” Until Rebbi Akiva came and taught from the verse (Leviticus 25:36), “Your brother shall live with you” – your life takes precedence over your fellow’s life (Talmud Bava Metzia 62a).

Which is expanded in the Talmud to say

“ How can you ever say that anyone person’s blood is any more important (red) than anyone else’s”  (Talmud Sanhedrin 72a). All of

Two principles emerge from this. All human life is equal, sacrosanct and valuable and it is not possible to say one person is automatically more valuable than another. One can’t make these kind of moral judgments as to whose life is more important.

Nowadays we may indeed talk about triage and about doctors having to decide what human life they can save and who to prioritize. And in fact, the practical side of Jewish law room for this. What are the exceptions to this moral principle? That one should not sacrifice one’s own life. One should defend it even at the risk of killing another person if there is no alternative. The Talmud encouraged disabling if possible (TB.Sanhedrin 72a).

However, Akiva was making this fundamentalist statement that under normal circumstances one never knows whose life is more important than any other, not even the greatest rabbi as opposed to the most ignorant person. Only God (or AI) can know the mind of men. He would agree with John Donne’s famous line

Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in all mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

There are however some moral issues that override the general ethical norm.  I think they are of such an important issue now as we are facing world condemnation for fighting for our survival when it is clear that this is something we should be prepared to lay our lives down for. We should not assume that everyone hates us. This goes against  other Talmudic statements about respect for “the ordinary non-Jew in the market place”  who does not threaten us.

But his position also seems to me to undermine the argument that is made in much of the Charedi world today that studying Torah overrides the responsibility for going out to fight for self defense. If Rebbi Akiva could allow his students to go out and fight the Romans, and we celebrate La’g BaOmer then there is no moral justification for any Charedi saying nowadays you do not have to serve in the army, when you are coming under an existential threat. It is one thing for an optional war, but this is a war of obligation. One’s life is in danger.

One could argue that Rebbi Akiva’s support of Bar Cochba was a disastrous military and political mistake that cost the lives of thousands. And a another misguided belief in a false messiah. Or one can look at him as moral example of someone who defied the Romans by continuing to teach Torah at the cost of his life in order to ensure that Judaism would survive. Which of course it did in no small part because of him.

Another one of Akiva’s lovely parables is that of the fox running alongside fish in a river fleeing the fishermen’s nets. And the fox invites the fish to escape by joining him on the bank. To which the fish replied if they leave the water, they will certainly die. But if they stay even if in danger in the water some of them may still survive (TB Brachot 61b). Which Sounds so apposite today.

We tend to quote Akiva to justify whatever specific position we subscribe to. Such one-sided interpretation does not do justice to a brilliant Jewish giant.

PS Has it occurred to anyone that Ireland ( DE Valera), Spain (Franco) and Norway (Quisling) cosied up to Hitler? And whereas the Butcher of Teheran gets a moment’s silence from the UN ( including the USA) but Israel gets condemned? Has the world gone mad or is it me?

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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