I was sitting at the DMV a couple months back reading Daniel Matt’s God and the Big Bang and he writes there something about the great Rabbi Akiva, whom tradition tells us was martyred by the Romans during Hadrianic suppression of the Bar Kochbah rebellion around 135 CE. And I realize I don’t believe a word of it. To tell the truth, I never liked Akiva. He always seemed too willing to transform some terrible act of catastrophe and suffering into some happy tiding, including his own death, butchered by the Romans.
Maybe the university Talmud scholars already knew this, but suddenly it hits me. The whole story is simply unbelievable. It’s a lie. I bet it worked out this way. The great Rabbi Akiva, or maybe he was just a loose screw, actually jumped ship. He abandoned the rebellion when it got too dangerous. Maybe he lived out his days. Or maybe he was murdered by his compatriots, who then pinned the blame on the Romans. (Did the same thing happen to that Jesus of Nazareth some years before? Did Jesus run away to die a natural death, or was he murdered not by the Rome and not by the Jews, but by his own disciples?) Perhaps Akiva was a canny fellow; or a holy fool.
What’s the purpose of this alternative ending? To imagine things differently, to tell a more believable story, or at least a different story. Or the point might be to free the rabbis from the stench of false piety and maudlin sentiment by revising the tale of one of its most pivotal figures.
Were the final redactors of the Babylonian Talmud (stamma’im) out to get Akiva? Did he have any reason, in their view, to get himself martyred? Could he not have stayed low? It’s not like there was anything at stake to warrant this kind of sacrifice like idolatry, committing bloodshed, or some gross sexual violation. Was Akiva their kind of rabbi? At least as I read them, the stamma’im were more cautious and rational than Akiva ever seems to appear in the Talmud and midrashim. His disciples ask, to “love God with all your soul” even up to this point? The ministering angels ask God “ Such Torah, and such a reward?So what do you do with a crazy guy? Make up a crazy story about him, turn him into a saint, and call it a day.
I’m trying also to figure out why the great scene of Akiva’s martyrdom in b.Berachot 61b is almost immediately preceded by Rava’s also famous dictum, “The world was created only for either the totally wicked or the totally righteous.10 Raba said: Let a man know concerning himself whether he is completely righteous or not! Rav said: The world was created only for Ahab son of Omri and for R. Hanina b. Dosa; for Ahab son of Omri this world, and for R. Hanina b. Dosa the future world.
What does that say about Akiva? Was he not completely righteous like R. Hanina b. Dosa?
And what are we make of the fact that Akiva’s story is followed by a long discussion of bathroom etiquette, including the story of his following R. Joshua into the privy?
This passage is also equally famous: It has been taught: R. Akiva said: Once I went in after R. Joshua to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. It has been taught: Ben ‘Azzai said: Once I went in after R. Akiba to a privy, and I learnt from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learnt that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said R. Judah to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? — He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. R.Kahana once went in and hid under Rab’s bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba’s mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude.1 He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn.
Either the stammaim are deeply ambivalent about Akiva, or I’m not getting something about the Babylonian Talmud.