Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Rabbi Akiva's Youth

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Rabbi Akiva's Youth

Article excerpt

IN AN ESSAY on the impact of the stam on talmudic historiography, Adiel Schremer has pointed to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion of some scholars: an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the Talmud has increases the distance between the modern scholar and the talmudic rabbis, and this in two ways.1 First, the stammaitic redaction of the Talmud makes it difficult to distinguish amoraic traditions from the later editorial additions and reworkings. Second, it places a wedge between the dominant voice of the Babylonian Talmud and the influence its account of historical events exerts on later generations, up to and including our own. Schremer 's argument focuses on the challenges facing the study of the Amoraim, and certainly the redactional issues are less acute for tannaitic sources (though not wholly absent), which have been subject to a much lighter redactional hand than their amoraic counterparts. The second issue, the dominance of the Babylonian Talmud and perhaps a broader inability to fully disentangle earlier sources from later accretions, is very relevant to tannaitic sources, nowhere more clearly than in the study of tannaitic biography.

The problem of rabbinic biography is not new. Already in 1976, Judah Goldin asserted that "despite the impressive quantities of midrashic and talmudic material, there is not one sage . . . [of whom it is] possible to write a biography in the serious sense of the word,"2 a view that would be repeated as a challenge to the discipline by William Scott Green a few years later.3 Since then, scholarship has been quite skeptical of "rabbinic biography," distancing itself from earlier tendencies to approach rabbinic sources as archives from which historical data could be extracted, so that today it is generally acknowledged "that while we can use rabbinic literatures to reconstruct trends in rabbinic intellectual and cultural history, factual information about particular sages is probably out of our reach." Perhaps no study has demonstrated this issue more clearly than The Sinner and the Amnesiac, Alon Goshen-Gottstein's analysis of the biographical traditions surrounding Elis ha ben Abuya.4 According to Goshen- Gottstein, there is a radical break between tannaitic and post-tannaitic accounts of this figure; indeed, the paradigmatic apostate of rabbinic literature - the proverbial aber, "other" - is not characterized as such in tannaitic sources. The Mishnah preserves a dictum in Elisha ben Abuya's name concerning the importance of Torah study at a young age (mAvot 4.20), while an early tradition preserved in the Talmud depicts him as an authoritative sage with nary a hint that he has left the rabbinic told (bMK 20a).5 Only in post-tannaitic sources is Elisha characterized as a heretic, and only there do we find discussions of the causes and precise nature of his heresy, of the response of his student, R. Meir, and more. Interestingly, the appellation aber is also geographically determined, attested only in Babylonian sources.6

Alerted by Goshen -Gottstein to this break, the reader is faced with two explanatory paradigms: that the post-tannaitic traditions surrounding Elisha ben Abuya's apostasy are grounded in historical reality (sometimes referred to as the "historical kernel"), in which case some account must be given of why the tannaitic sources remain silent regarding such a cardinal issue and their ongoing willingness to cite, without qualification, the teachings of Elisah ben Abuya. Or, more radically, that the later sources have invented the apostate Elisha ben Abuya whole cloth.

The present study argues that there is a similar break in the tannaitic and post-tannaitic traditions surrounding the best-known rabbinic life, that of Rabbi Akiva. The basic contours of R. Akiva's biography are well known: a young ignoramus - perhaps a shepherd - who, encouraged by his wife, Rachel, turns to Torah scholarship relatively late in life, emerges as the greatest scholar of his generation and perhaps of rabbinic Judaism as such. …

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