Tuesday, May 31, 2016

We Are Heirs to Rabbi Akiba’s Legacy ( Lag B’ Omer 2016)

We Are Heirs to Rabbi Akiba’s Legacy ( Lag B’ Omer 2016)

            This past Thursday, we had a small Jewish holiday, Lag B-Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. In Israel, it is marked, by Hasidic and Kabbalistic groups, as the day to visit the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the father of Kabbalah, by tradition; it is the day of “ op-sheren” (hair cuts for 3 year old boys), bonfires at night, and  Jewish scholars joining the NRA for a day and playing with bow and arrow.

            The origin of the festival and its customs is smoked and clouded, but tradition has associated it with this account of Rabbi Akiba:

            “It was said that R. Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, . . .and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. . . . All of them died between Passover and Pentecost [that is the period we know of as the ‘Omer’].” (Yebamoth 62b).

            It is a very obscure statement. What disrespect? What was the sudden death? Rabbinic usage was often clouded in hints and allusions, as many teachings had to evade the secret police of different eras, long ago, as in modern times. We know that he had a tremendous following, we know that some disaster occurred, and that in the end, he was left with only a few great students. We know that this occurred during the persecution of Judaism by the Roman Emperor Hadrian and then the great,but doomed, rebellion of Bar Kochba.

            Only in the Middle Ages do we find an association of a mourning period during the Omer and this Talmudic statement ( Meiri) and of Lag B’Omer, as a break from mourning, attributed to an end of the plague for one day.

     We could say that we made a mountain out of a molehill: no haircuts, no weddings, no agreement between Sefardi and Ashkenazi on when these practices begins or ends.  It is part of the burden, “ the lachrymose vale of tears”, per the scholar Salo Baron, that has beclouded the beauty of Judaism because of the centuries of Crusades, expulsions, and pogroms. Our beautiful, bright tradition has been warped by our tragedies.

            What could Lag B’ Omer have meant? Some suggest that it is a reminder of the war against Rome under Bar Kochba and the 33rd day perhaps marks a day of victory before the final disastrous defeat at Betar in 135 CE. Hence, the tradition of bonfires and scholars taking off to play with bow and arrows. Rabbi Akiba seems to have been a supporter of Bar Kochba, even pronouncing him as the “Kochba”, the Star, that would be a sign of the Messiah, son of King David. Later scholars, teaching in the time of more favorable Roman regimes, obscured some of the account of the rebellion. Traces would be hidden in the account of the sages at Bnei Brak discussing the Exodus until the time of the morning Shma (in the Haggadah of Pesach) and in the monthly Blessing of the Moon, in which we declare,” King David is Alive and Well” and that our enemies will never destroy us.

            All this arcane discussion of an obscure date is now an excuse to introduce this exceptional teacher , the equivalent of Moses, Rabbi Akiba.

            First, he begins his life as a humble shepherd, who wants nothing to do with the Perushim, the academics, the ones who live in an academic bubble,until he finds love!

      So, here is the story:

The daughter, Rachel, of Kalba Sabua,[the richest man in Judea at the time, and a true benefactor, of whom, it was said, a poor man went in hungry as a dog, Kalba, and came out well fed, Sabua], betrothed herself to R. Akiba. When her father heard thereof, he vowed that she was not to benefit from aught of his property. Then she went and married him in winter. They slept on straw, and he had to pick out the straw from his hair. 'If only I could afford it,' said he to her, 'I would present you with a Golden Jerusalem [the origin of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, a massive gold belt]. She counselled him, 'Go, and become a scholar.' So he left her, and spent twelve years [studying]  . . .At the end of this period, he was returning home, when from the back of the house he heard a wicked man jeering at his wife, 'Your father did well to you. Firstly, because he is your inferior; and secondly, he has abandoned you to living widowhood all these years.' She replied, 'Yet were he to hear my desires, he would be absent another twelve years. Seeing that she has thus given me permission,' he said, 'I will go back.' So he went back, and was absent for another twelve years, . . .he returned with twenty-four thousand disciples. . .. So she went to see him, but the disciples wished to repulse her. 'Make way for her,' he told them, 'for my [learning] and yours are hers.' (Nedarim 50a)

     Is this the true account? Perhaps but a lovely tale of romance, Rabbinic style, but it probably reflects the image that Rabbi Akiba presented to his followers, a man of very humble origins, who at first wished to bite every scholar he saw, yet a tender and caring man, dedicated and brilliant, who owed it all to – his wife.

    What was his greatness?

    We talk of Judaism as a tradition of respecting debate. That is only  partly true. We are a tradition of respecting absolutely irreconcilable view points. Thus, we have the dichotomy of Priest and Prophet in the Bible. Our greatest works on Jewish law were done by the master rationalist and Arisotelian, the Rambam, Maimonidies, on the one hand, and  Rabbi Joseph Karo, a major Kabbalist and colleague of the Ari, who talked with an angel that perched on his shoulder and told him all his answers.

     We do not talk about a religion that respects different opinions- It respects different planets.

     Thus R Akiba, in so many tales, is frequently associated with Rabbi Ishmael. It is like the late Judge Scalia and Judge Ginsberg, speakers for original intent versus a living constitution. Both were right but existed on two different planets, and both were great friends outside of court.

From Rabbi Ishmael we get” Dibra Torah bilshon bnei adam”. The Torah is written in the language of human beings; it is accessible by pure logic. The job of the teacher is to use logic, and the text, to determine what should be done. In the morning, before we say the first Kaddish, it is customary to recite 13 rules of analysis of text attributed to him.

      Then, there is Rabbi Akiba who is  doresh achin v atin. He interprets the “even”( Akh) and the marker of a definite object of a sentence,(Et) and even the crowns that decorate selected letters of the Torah (Tag).

     The Sofrim and  earlier scholars sought to find justification for existing practice in the text, we might say “ Retro-fitting.” He went much further and freed the Halakhah from the literal, while tying it to past oral tradition and also to the power of the community of scholars to lead in new directions. From Rabbi Akiba on, there can be no such concept in Judaism as “orthodox”, a Greek word meaning “Only one correct teaching.” Halakha becomes a living creative development and stays that way, until the invention of the printing press and other developments of modernity “freeze” the living Halakha.( The terms “ Orthodox”, “Conservative”, and “ Reform” are all borrowings from Christian Europe of the 19th century).

    Till the 2nd century the Rabbis debated the meanings of words literally. After Rabbi Akiba, the Rabbis invented meaning.

     His impact was so profound that later generations would see him as another Moses. So we have this account in the Talmud:

         Rabbi Yehudah said, "Rav said, 
      "When Moshe ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and attaching crowns to the letters. He said before Him, "Master of the Universe! Who is staying your hand?"
     He said to him, "There is one man man who will exist after many generations, and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name, who will in the future expound on every crown and crown piles and piles of laws."
     He said before Him,"Master of the Universe! Show him to me."
     He said to him, "Turn backwards."
     He went and sat at the end of eight rows [of students in Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash], and he did not know what they were talking [about]. He got upset.
     As soon as he got to one [other] thing, his students said to him,"Our teacher, from where do you learn this?"
     He said to them,
"It is a law [that was taught] to Moshe at Sinai."
     He calmed down.
     He returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him,
"Master of the Universe! You have a man like this, and You are giving the Torah through me?"
      He said to Him,"Be silent. This is what I have decided."
      He said before Him, "Master of the Universe! You have shown me his Torah; show me his reward." He said to him,"Turn backwards." He turned backwards, and saw that they were tearing his skin with iron combs.
    He said before Him, "Master of the Universe! Such Torah, and such reward!"
    He said to him,"Be silent. This is what I have decided."( Menahot 29 b)

          This is a very unusual text. The Torah must be revealed through Moses, even though Akiba is the greater, and Akiba must die a horrible death, even though he is virtuous. I leave it to your imagination to ponder what God’s planning is, or why.

      He was a tremendous religious humanist. “ Great is God’s love of humanity, for he created humanity in the Divine image. Even greater love is shown in the fact that He has revealed this love, for it is written ,” He created Adam in the Divine image!”( Gen. 9 and Mishnah  Avoth 3:14) and “ The great principal of the Torah is,” Love your neighbor as yourself!”.( Bereshit Rabbah 24:7 on Lev.19).

      As great as his regard for humanity is his love of the people of Israel." Great is God's love of Israel, since are call the the children of the  Eternal One. Even greater love is shown in the fact that He has revealed it to them, as it says, " You are the children of the Lord, your God.( Mishnah Avot, loc cit and Deuteronomy 14).

      We will soon see how far Rabbi Akiba, in turn,showed his love of God.

          He was not just a jurist; he was a visionary in the school of the early mystics.

“Our Rabbis taught: Four men entered the ‘Garden’, namely, Ben ‘Azzai and Ben Zoma, Aher, and R. Akiba. Ben ‘Azzai cast a look and died. Ben Zoma looked and became demented. Aher mutilated the shoots( became a heretic). R. Akiba departed unhurt.”( Hagigah14 b)
The " Garden" is a veiled reference to out of body experience to the upper heavens, a vision allowed to only a few select individuals. This is an act fraught with danger, and only rabbi Akiba was able to enter this experience and come out unscathed.

     Finally, as the story I told above mentions, he dies at the hand of the Roman tyrants. Hadrian, the Emperor, sees in the teachings of Judaism a threat to the Empire. He is one of the “Good Emperors” and needs to unify the Empire under one Hellenistic philosophy and cult, as the villainous Antiochus had tried centuries earlier. The Jews, of course, and the lone holdouts of the Empire. He bans circumcision and is determined to re-establish the ruined Jerusalem as a Roman city. Hence, the rebellion follows that is so ferocious that the Emperor in his report to the Senate removes the words ” I and my army are well.”

       It is in this atmosphere that we can understand the last act of Rabbi Akiba:

       Our Rabbis taught: Once the wicked Government issued a decree forbidding the Jews to study and practice the Torah. Pappus b. Judah came and found R. Akiba publicly bringing gatherings together and occupying himself with the Torah. He said to him: Akiba, are you not afraid of the Government? He replied: I will explain to you with a parable. A fox was once walking alongside of a river, and he saw fishes going in swarms from one place to another. He said to them: From what are you fleeing? They replied: From the nets cast for us by men. He said to them: Would you like to come up on to the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that my ancestors lived with your ancestors? They replied: Art thou the one that they call the cleverest of animals? Thou art not clever but foolish. If we are afraid in the element in which we live, how much more in the element in which we would die! So it is with us. If such is our condition when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is written, For that is thy life and the length of thy days, if we go and neglect it how much worse off we shall be . . .
        When R. Akiba was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema', and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, 'with all thy soul', [which I interpret,] 'even if He takes thy soul'. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged the word ehad (One) until he expired while saying it. A bat kol, a divine voice, went forth and proclaimed: Happy art thou, Akiba, that thy soul has departed with the word ehad! . . .A bat kol went forth and proclaimed: Happy art thou, R. Akiba, that thou art destined for the life of the world to come. (Berakhot 61b)

      We Jews today, can celebrate Lag B’Omer and all the holidays, great and small, because we are the spiritual heirs of such great teachers as Rabbi Akiba, scholars and wise men and women, dedicated and loving to our partners and community, people of vision and the dedication to be true to our Torah and to the love of God, a tiny people who overcame all obstacles. It is up to us to continue as Rabbi Akiba's heirs..

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