Book review: Portrait of Akiva

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Writing a biography about one of the early rabbinic sages is almost as difficult as writing one about a biblical character. However, while there is a debate over where or not biblical characters ever existed, the rabbis mentioned in the Mishnah and Talmud are historical figures. The nature of that material, though, means that scholars must discern which parts are factual and which are legend. To further complicate matters, the same stories and sayings are sometimes attributed to more than one rabbi. Rabbi Reuben Hammer, Ph.D., a professor of rabbinic literature, takes these problems into consideration in his latest work “Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy” (The Jewish Publication Society). While his focus is on the life of Akiva ben Josef, one of the best known sages, his greatest contribution is his overview of the development of rabbinic Judaism.

In his preface, Hammer notes that it would be easier to write a novel about Akiva since so many stories told about him are clearly legend. For example, there is little reliable material about Akiva’s younger days. While there is enough evidence to suggest that he grew up in a poor family and began his studies as an adult, there is little factual basis to the best known tales of his early life. These include the story about his marriage to a woman from a rich family who was disowned by her father after the wedding. While some of the early sources do mention a wife, it is only later she is given the name of Rachel. It’s also difficult to determine exactly how old Akiva was when he began his studies and how long it took to complete them, although there is evidence that he was a quick learner. Part of the problem is that legend claims Akiva lived to be 120-years-old – something Hammer sees as an exaggeration. That does makes it difficult to parse other statements that talk about his age, though.

It’s clear that Avika played a major role in the development of rabbinic Judaism, but it is impossible to know if all the biblical interpretations and halachic decisions attributed to him were really his words. However, whoever made these statements did have a great impact on rabbinic culture. Hammer notes that Akiva often strayed from the simple meaning of the biblical text: “Finding meaning in every detail, using words and letters as means of attaching his ideas and concepts to the text, he exercised an unprecedented freedom of interpretation, opening up the sacred text to almost unlimited horizons.” Not everyone agreed with him – other sages felt “he played fast and loose [with the text] without justification.” Unfortunately, the specific examples Hammer includes are too complex to discuss here, but they are based on the idea that Akiva saw everything – for example, a word or phrase being repeated – as having a specific, distinct meaning. Nothing in the Torah was there by accident.

Although Akiva is also known for his support of the Bar Kokhva rebellion against Rome, Hammer doesn’t believe he played a major role in the uprising. Akiva did give Bar Kokhva his tacit approval, but no additional support. Hammer notes, “There is not one shred of evidence that Akiva joined Bar Kokhva’s troops or advised him in any way. The many attempts that have been made to picture Akiva as actively participating in the rebellion, serving as Bar Kokhva’s advisor or sending his disciples into battle with him are without any factual basis.” Avika’s arrest by the Roman authorities was due to his continuing to teach Torah publically, even after Rome outlawed its study. As for the stories about his death, there are no written records from the time – either Roman or rabbinic – from which to formulate an accurate story. However, it is clear that his tale of martyrdom – including the idea that he recited the Shema while dying – is a legend.

Hammer also discusses Avika’s ideas of theology, his thoughts on mysticism and his push for the Song of Songs to be included in the biblical canon. He notes that Avika’s greatest contribution may have been his collection of Jewish oral traditions, although it was only later these were redacted by Judah HaNasi as the Mishnah. While Akiva never specifically outlined his ideas about the nature of God, Hammer sees him as having “a consistent view of the value and meaning of human life and God’s connection to humankind and a concept of One God who is loving, merciful, immanent, concerned and approachable.”

In addition, Hammer gives insights into the changes that occurred after the destruction of the Second Temple. For example, he notes that the sages “attempted to fill the void left by the loss of the Temple and the cult with religious reforms – new interpretations of ancient laws, new readings of old texts and new forms of religious observance.” Hammer also makes it clear, though, that the sages did not control the Jewish community. The students who attended rabbinic academies were a minority and the general public chose which ruling to follow; the sages did not have the authority to impose their views.

“Akiva” is an excellent, well-written scholarly work that is also accessible to the general reader. Hammer performs a delicate balancing act – not only between deciding between fact and legend, but in showing the struggles within the rabbinic community. Readers looking to learn more about Akiva and the growth of rabbinic Judaism will find his work has much to offer.