Talmudic Titan

By Asia, Daniel | New Criterion, March 2018 | Go to article overview

Talmudic Titan


Asia, Daniel, New Criterion


Barry W. Holtz

Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud

Yale University Press, 248 pages, $25

Barry Holtz is a storyteller, educator, translator, and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also demonstrated his mastery of writing books, at a rate of about one a decade, with previous works that include seminal texts such as Your Word Is Fire (with Arthur Green), Back to the Sources, Finding Our Way, Textual Knowledge, and now his newest book, a "biography" of Rabbi Akiva, which is scholarly, yet eminently approachable. This book will be of great interest not only to Jews, for whom Akiva is the architect of the Jewish enterprise from his time to today, but, as Akiva lived right around the time of Jesus, also for Christians of all stripes who wish to get a better sense of the Jewish world at that time.

The word biography is in quotes above because no personal effects, letters, or legal documents of Akiva's remain. There are, however, 1,341 mentions of him in the Babylonian Talmud, the primary source for our knowledge of him. So while there is no "proof" that Akiva lived, Holtz believes that he did:

   I cannot know whether every story about him
   and every utterance attributed to him reflects
   what he did or said, but I do know that editors
   who established the texts that have come down
   to us from long ago chose to preserve certain
   stories and teachings in Akiva's name and that
   despite the complexities of transmission, it is
   possible to discern a portrait of his life.

Holtz was trained in English literature, and loves a good story. He approaches the history of his subject through rabbinic sources and anecdotes. Akiva was born around 50 A.D. and died about eighty years later, yet nothing is known of his parents or where he lived his life. This is therefore an intellectual biography that relies on interactions with others--his wife, his students, his community of fellow rabbis--that shed light on the man and his thought, with little actual biography. Holtz's use of the word "portrait" is most telling. A portrait is, after all, the way one man is rendered by another, which is far different from the verisimilitude that a photograph might provide. This portrait provides a sense of the emotional landscape, the inner sense of the man.

The first chapter, "Akiva's World," reviews the period from the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians to the following exile and return of the Jews eighty years later. Herod became king with the support of the Romans in 40 B.C., ending over a century of Hasmonean rule. His reign was marked by the expansion of the Second Temple and Jerusalem. If Akiva was born in Jerusalem at this time, he found himself in a cosmopolitan and wealthy center of the world. A new institution, the synagogue, was just forming, which may have had multiple purposes, including a space for praying and for reading the Torah, studying, and meeting. But what did it mean to be a Jew then? It was a nation and a people who worshiped one God, in the Temple in Jerusalem, and followed the laws of the Torah. This was radically altered after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., which engendered questions of an existential nature: "Where was God and what was God's power in light of the disaster? What is the meaning of worship in a world without the temple? How can the Torah be understood in the aftermath of this tragedy? These were among the most powerful issues that would confront Akiva during his lifetime."

Akiva was not alone in trying to answer these questions. The new term "rabbi" was applied perhaps to fifty to one hundred men. It was a flexible designation, connoting someone who thought well. It was applied to a loose band of men and was non-hierarchical, informal, and non-institutional. They might have met in a wealthy patron's home or a public gathering place; or maybe the rabbis themselves were well-to-do and formed a kind of aristocracy. …

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