In Honor of Rabbi Akiva

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Question: I am a counselor in the “Bnei Akiva” Religious Youth Movement. At our weekly Shabbat meeting someone brought in a new book with shocking material about Rabbi Akiva. The book describes a dark, turbid relationship with his wife, whom he abandoned for twenty-four years, and her quarrelsome relations with his third wife. It describes his tragic mistake in the Bar-Kochba Revolt, in which he, so to speak, removed G-d from history. It describes his rejection of the traditional/conservative approach to the Torah and his inventing the idea that one can interpret the Torah however one wants, so to speak removing G-d from the Torah. And other terrible things as well. We who walk in the pathway of Rabbi Akiva, obviously could not accept these things. Are we right, or are there seventy approaches to the Torah?

Answer: What all of those accusations have in common is that they have no source. They are not from the seventy legitimate approaches to the Torah but from the seventy-first, which is outside of the Torah. They are inventions, but what is worse, they constitute gossip and slander of the most heinous sort.

It is true that Rabbi Akiva wed before he met Rachel at age forty, for the Rabbis teach that he went off to learn the alphabet together with his son (Avot DeRabbi Natan 6). That son later became Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha (see Seder Ha-Dorot, s.v. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha). Yet it is clear that his first wife had passed away, for we know that the Sages of the Mishnah married only one wife, and Rabbi Akiva lived 120 years, which is a very long life. It thus turns out that after Rachel’s death, he married his third wife, who had previously been married to Turnus Rufus and had converted (Nedarim 50b, see Rashi and Rabbenu Nissim).

Yet as far as quarreling, nothing like that happened. It’s just plain libel. Likewise, he did not abandon his wife to learn Torah. Rather, as is well-known, she sent him off out of her love for the Torah, and she gave up everything for his sake.

Moreover, throughout all of the years,  Rabbi Akiva’s wife lived with his mother, working for her friends. Half of her salary she would use herself, and half she would send to Rabbi Akiva (Avot De-Rabbi Natan, Addendum 2 to Version 1, Chapter 8). Yet one can see that slander is nothing new. Already back then there was a person in her neighborhood “who would verbally embarrass and humiliate her, saying, ‘Look at this foolish woman who relented on the glory of her father’s house, went and got herself married to the very lowest of the low.  Not only that, but she leaves herself open to ridicule by claiming that he studies Torah’” (ibid.).

Rabbi Akiva does not represent a deviant stream of thought, removed from the House of Study. Quite the contrary, he represents the mainstream within the House of Study, the root of all other streams. As Rav Kook wrote in his letter to Bnei Akiva, which begins, “To those dear to my heart, Bnei Akiva,” all the streams of thought within the Oral Torah derive from that great ocean, the all-encompassing Torah of Rabbi Akiva (Ma’amarei Ha-Re’eiyah 202). There he also points out the “supreme holiness” that includes “loving Torah to the point of sacrificing one’s life amidst infinite suffering” (ibid.).

In addition, the Bar-Kochba rebellion includes no rebellion against G-d, but only fulfillment of G-d’s commandment. As Rav Kook writes, “Rabbi Akiva’s special trait, reawakening now during the flowering of our redemption and providing us with an everlasting light, was His enthusiasm and self-sacrifice to bolster every vision of redemption and rebirth for Israel and its Land. And precisely because that vision failed in his day, and Bar-Kochba fell, and together with him Israel as far as its national liberation, we are certain that the truth of Torah from his holy lips will have its day, and that day is fast arriving. Suffering will not twice befall us. Not in vain has Israel waged a war of survival and victory up until this very generation.” (ibid.)

In other words, the Bar-Kochba rebellion failed, but the principle that we bear an obligation to foment a war of liberation was correct. It is by dint of this that we will be aroused when the time comes, and then we will succeed. That time is now. And indeed, Israel’s War of Independence, our own Bar Kochba revolt, succeeded, is succeeding and will succeed.

As far as the relationship between Rabbi Akiva and Rachel, here the slander exceeds all bounds. Every schoolchild knows that the story of Rabbi Akiva and Rachel is the most marvelous love story in all our Rabbinic literature. Rav Kook, as well, highlights it in his introduction to Song of Songs as a “natural, pure love” (Olat Re’eiyah 2:4).

Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Aharon Heiman wrote a powerful work “Toldot Tana’im Ve-Amora’im” [history of the Mishnaic and Talmudic sages]. Yet although it was a work that was total erudition and total Torah, when it came to Rabbi Akiva, he could not restrain his amazement, both from Rabbi Akiva’s personality and from the love story between him and his wife:

“When he was herding the sheep of the wealthy Kalba Savua, the latter’s lovely daughter Rachel saw how humble and virtuous he was and fell in love with him. She revealed to him her love, making clear that she was ready to wed him, but only on condition that he leave her father’s sheep and go study in yeshiva.

While it is not my intent here to write love stories, we can well imagine how the daughter of the most prominent member of his people, raised in the lap of her father’s wealth, made a decision to abandon all that glory and to wed someone who was the lowest of the low, a poverty-stricken ignoramus, much older than she, with a son from a previous marriage. She doubtless knew in advance that if her father found out, he would banish them both.

We can be certain as well that this great union was not formed overnight. Akiva, the shepherd, knew very well how risky would be his first steps for the gentle soul of his master’s daughter. What great doubts he must have entertained, lest he fail in his studies, and regarding how they would support themselves while he studied. He could not decide what to do, whether to heed his beloved Rachel, or to desist.

He saw a spring, with a hollow stone sitting on top, and when he asked who had made the hole, he was informed that water dripping constantly on the stone had made the hole over time. Rabbi Akiva concluded, ‘If water can engrave stone, then all the more so can Torah be engraved on my heart.’ He immediately decided to fulfill his beloved’s wishes, and consented to wed her, and they were secretly betrothed.

Yet when her father heard that it had really happened, not only did he banish Rabbi Akiva from his home, but he banished Rachel as well, and disowned her of his possessions. Yet not only did she not recant, but in the middle of the winter she married Akiva the shepherd, the poverty-stricken ignoramus, and they both lived in a straw storage house, without a pillow under their heads. The straw would get entangled in her beautiful hair, and he would remove it. He told her, ‘If G-d allows me to become wealthy, I will make you a Jerusalem of Gold to wear on your beautiful head.’”

As far as Rabbi Akiva, himself, here is what Rav Heiman writes about his personality: “When we set out to write the history of this remarkable man, no matter how deeply we probe, and no matter how astounded we become, we will never come even half way towards discovering the heights of his greatness. Yet Divine Providence, which decreed that our Temple should be destroyed and its glory removed, brought us the cure before the illness in the person of Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, who saved the Nation’s soul from total destruction. He was blessed by G-d with neither lineage, nor wealth nor wisdom, for he was an ignoramus and a herdsman, the son of converts, and already on in years. Yet due to a great and precious woman, his fortunes turned around, and he became one of the heads of the wise men of the generation, who brought wisdom to his own teachers, and gained enormous wealth. At the end of his life, he became the head of the entire generation, and he produced tens of thousands of students. From this we see how the crown of Torah is greater than the crown of the priesthood or kingship. The crown of priesthood was granted by inheritance to the descendants of Aaron, the crown of kingship was granted by inheritance to the House of David, and no king from the royal line could have a non-Jewish parent. Yet the crown of Torah is an inheritance to everyone.”

As for yourselves, members of the precious Bnei Akiva movement, be strong, study Torah to bring honor to our great master Rabbi Akiva, and continue to follow in his path.