A Sage for Today
Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud (Yale University Press, 2017), by Barry W. Holtz
In my new biography of Rabbi Akiva, I have tried to draw upon the latest scholarship about rabbinic stories to present the outlines of his life anew for our times, in the light of what we know about how to read these stories from our tradition and about the historical context of the ancient Jewish world. My goal was to present the various stories about Akiva’s life in an intellectually serious but accessible manner, highlighting their literary character and trying to discern the ways that Akiva’s story might speak to people today.
Why should we care about Akiva, this figure from 2000 years ago? I think it is because the story of his life is both archetypical and unique. Who could not be drawn into such a tale? Born in poverty (or at least in a family with no social status), unschooled in his religious tradition, he mocks scholars and disdains them (in one telling of his early life). And then a personal revelation comes to him, and he decides that despite his advanced age he must learn Torah, starting from the very basics of the alphabet. And this man becomes the greatest rabbi of them all. In another version of the story, he courts the daughter of a wealthy man—who opposes the relationship—and wins her heart, and eventually the respect of her father, through his accomplishments.
He is a mystic as well as a practical legal analyst, a theologian and a text interpreter. He disputes with his colleagues in dramatic fashion, yet is admired and beloved by his peers. And in the end, he becomes the exemplar of Jewish martyrs, executed by the Romans with the Shema on his lips. Akiva has captivated the Jewish imagination: a hero in the Jewish mystical and legal traditions, and the exemplar for the innovative interpretation of Torah. His biography expresses the heart of what it means to be a Jew—intellectually engaged, spiritually profound, and deeply human.