Friday, April 14, 2017

Review of Holtz, Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud (Yale UP, 2017)

BOOK REVIEW: Rabbi Akiva Made the Jews Who They Are Today, Says Biographer (David Holzel, The Jewish Exponent).
What we think of as Judaism today — from the religion practiced by the haredi Orthodox in contemporary B’nai Brak, Israel, to the lack of religion of secular Jews — was created by the rabbis in the centuries following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. If there was a quintessential rabbi in the group, said [Barry] Holtz, a professor of education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, that man was Akiva.

“He was the smartest one in the room,” he said.

Holtz has written what he calls an “imagined biography” of Akiva, who lived in the first and second centuries CE.


Four entered the orchard. While one looked and died, another looked and was stricken, a third looked and cut down the shoots, only Rabbi Akiva “went up in peace and came down in peace.”

This enigmatic story became part of the foundation of the Jewish mystical tradition. In his exploration of the “Orchard Story” or the “Pardes Story,” Holtz looks at what the four were doing, and why only Akiva seems to have returned unscathed.

“Akiva,” Holtz writes, “becomes the ultimate model of the Jewish mystic — gaining mystical knowledge and power and seeing the face of the divine.”

He became the model of the Jewish martyr as well, being executed by the Romans for violating a ban on teaching and learning Torah, a policy whose actuality Holtz called “murky.”

The book was noted as forthcoming here. For more on the Story of the Four Who Entered Paradise, see here and links.