The life and times of Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50 CE to 135 CE)
Yochi Brandes has written a daring novel from a female perspective about the life and times of Rabbi Akiva. Brandes humanizes this hero of the Jewish people. She exposes aspects of the rabbi’s personality and lifestyle that could have been more considerate of his wife and children who are the collateral damage to his lifestyle choices: complete unwavering dedication to Torah study, teaching, and eventually building Torah institutions that will set the path for of Jewish life for eternity. None of the rabbi’s choices are as important nor devastating as his opposition to Rome’s occupation and the reinvention of the Jewish State ensuring security by the hand of a Jewish army. He is forced into internecine politics, rabbinic feuds and resistance to Rome’s occupation of Palestine. Akiva concludes Jews must rebel to ensure survival of a secure Jewish State in which Torah life will thrive. These are lessons many of today’s Torah scholars need to learn.
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Judaism has no heroes except God. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are mortals renown for accepting and spreading monotheism. They lived according to Torah values in an age dominated by whim and unbridled passions.
None is more a hero than Moses. Yet, sins and petulance prevent Moses from entering the Promised Land despite being the only human to see the face of God. Jewish heroes must demonstrate to the people an unwavering faith in One God and willingness to lead their people and die for them if need be.
The Orchard is the eighth book of Israeli novelist Yochi Brandes. She tells the life of Rabbi Akiva in an intriguing fiction format keeping this reader turning the pages. But this is not a history book. The Orchard is about a woman’s love, family and devotion to a cause—to push Akiva to become a great Torah scholar and leader like those before him. His wife and Brandes succeed. His wife is memorialized in Jewish history as the paradigm of an aishes chayil (a fearless, bold, woman of courage).
Rabbi Akiva is destined to become one of Judaism’s heroes, but Brandes does not treat Akiva with kid gloves. Akiva shares with other heroes “two qualities in extreme form—wisdom and appeal.” He too prioritizes “the welfare of the general public,” his 12,000 students and his learning, above his own family’s needs like Moses feeling forced to divorce his wife. In a most dramatic exasperating scene, Brandes tells of a woman who comes to Akiva ashen-faced telling him, “Your son is ill.” He is mortally ill. “Akiva tightens his lips,” remains stoically silent not asking any details. Thoroughly exasperated she raises her voice and screams at Akiva, “Go home,” but “He goes back to studying” and awaits news of the boy’s death. Is this the act of a hero to leave his wife alone to bury their son?
Brandes portrays Akiva overly devout, and willing to sacrifice his children to a life of abject poverty. His wife must go to the marketplace and sell goods. She is so lonely she laments feeling like an agunah (abandoned wife chained to her marriage), while Akiva is away for years, living “in the bubble of Torah. Nothing interests him.”
What is a novel without intrigue? Brandes does not disappoint. Akiva is thrust into a tenacious web of power struggles between rabbis; an angry rich father-in-law and the daughter who defies him to marry Akiva; internecine fights dragooning Akiva to choose sides between rabbis who are his mentors, friends, chevrusas (learning mates) and scholars he admires. Prestige and power are on the line for winning control of houses of learning that set the path for Jewish philosophy, hermeneutics, exegeses and precepts for eternity.
Then there is living under the yoke of Roman occupation, the spreading “message of Jesus to the Romans. Crowds of (Jews) flocked to him. That’s what brought about his end. The mass appeal of the Nazarenes is a threat to the empire, then and now.”
As early as page 19, Brandes lets readers feel the love Akiva has for God in an erogenous exchange with his love. She visits Akiva in his solitude, while living in a cave, learning the secrets of Torah, and fomenting a love of God. She constantly pushes Akiva to become the giant Torah scholar she knows is his potential:
“I move closer and sit down beside him, my legs touching his. He takes my hand and places it in the hollow into which the water is flowing. My fingers are on fire, a shiver runs down my spine…We sit for a few moments without speaking. I lean my head toward him. I watch him, not wanting the silence to end. But he makes that odd statement again: ‘I love God.’ My throat tightens. I never before imagined that a person could be jealous of God. Feel the silence, Rachel.” She is relentless wanting Akiva to learn the Torah and takes the opportunity to compel in the pursuit. In a climax that becomes the turning point in his life, Rachel persuades Akiva, to let Torah “penetrate into your heart. He smiles, and the smile reaches his eyes. I know that I have done it.”
Akiva pays the price for the Jewish rebellion against Rome by Bar Kokhba. Brandes offers a chilling description of his torture and death. Akiva lives in history as a Jewish hero. “The State of Judea will live in security from the desert in the south to the Lebanon in the north.” If only students of Torah today shared the faith of Rabbi Akiva.
On a final note, some readers may recall the controversy surrounding a two-volume book, Making of a Godol, published in 2002, and authored by Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky. The book was about the life of his esteemed father. The book was banned in the Orthodox world and pulled. Leading rabbis condemned it being disrespectful to the lives of rabbinic leaders because it shared tidbits about them: reading newspapers, Russian books in his father’s youth, a “sore loser” at chess. The book humanized his father.
I can imagine what these 21st-century censors might do if any of them read The Orchard. Brandes will surely face demonstrators and death threats.