Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives

By Steven T. Katz; Alan Rosen | Go to book overview

3
WIESEL AND RABBI AKIVA

JOSEPH POLAK

EARLY IN HIS ESSAY on Rabbi Akiva, Elie Wiesel asks:

Is it because of the striking similarity between his times and ours that Rabbi Akiva
seems more present—more relevant—than most other Talmudic personalities?

As a survivor of the destruction of Jerusalem, he had to find a way of conferring
meaning upon it; he had to learn—and teach—how to deal with its aftermath, how
to explain and articulate what cannot—should not—be explained, what to tell …
people who wondered why they should go on praying, or dreaming, or living as Jews
in a world that seemed to have been drained of Jewishness.1

The essay on Akiva is magnificent; not a stone about him is left unturned, not a legend neglected. Every primary and secondary source on his life has been plumbed and sifted. And yet for all his admiration and admitted love for this hero, still, as befalls him so often, a question haunts Wiesel: why did Rabbi Akiva go so stoically to his martyr’s death at the hands of the Romans; why was he so accepting of his sentence, why did he die apparently exalted by the fact that it offered him the privilege of martyrdom; why did he die teaching this? Didn’t he know, he asks, how dangerous it is to exalt martyrdom, didn’t Rabbi Akiva know that this would be modeling political passivity; wouldn’t it—if I may put words in Wiesel’s mouth that he himself would never use—teach Jews to go to their deaths like sheep to slaughter?

In his own words:

I am mystified by Rabbi Akiva’s passivity during his [final] agony. He seems to have
welcomed suffering and death. Rather than rebel and turn his pain into an existen-
tial insurrection, his punishment into an act of supreme protest, he decided to sub-
mit and pray. Rather than formulate the question of all questions—
that of the role
of divine justice in human anguish—he answered it. And for some time I did not
like his answer.

As much as I admired and revered Rabbi Akiva, a hero of many dreamers, I
could not help but see him as a martyr who was attracted by martyrdom….

The fact that countless generations of victims and martyrs have claimed kin-
ship with Rabbi Akiva has made the problem even more acute, more challenging.

-30-

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