Rabbi Akiva

Sage of the Talmud

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Barry W. Holtz
Jewish Lives
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , March
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The history of the critical study of the Hebrew Bible extends to the  17th century, and the transition from a confessionally-inflected understanding of Scripture to a historical and philological approach was halting and uneven. The academic study of rabbinic literature is more recent, and the field’s transition from the norms of yeshivah study to those of the university more precarious. No subfield reflects this shift and its attendant struggles more clearly than rabbinic biography. Traditional scholars assumed the historical veracity of every statement in classical rabbinic sources (and particularly the Babylonian Talmud), and composed biographies that are, in essence, anthologies of narratives and dicta that touch on a given sage’s life. These assumptions regarding rabbinic biography have proven remarkably durable, despite the adoption of philological norms in other areas of inquiry. Louis Finkelstein’s Akiba: Scholar, Saint, and Martyr (1936, reissued as late as 1990) is based primarily on sources preserved in the Babylonian Talmud—chronologically the equivalent of a biography of St. Paul based on Byzantine sources.

The 1970’s saw a sustained reckoning with the question of biography, particularly in the work of Jacob Neusner and his students. Emphatically underlining this shift was Alon Goshen-Gottsetein’s The Sinner and the Amnesiac (2000) which demonstrated how radically later rabbinic sources revised the tannaitic portraits of sages, introducing themes and characterizations absent from the earlier strata. More recent scholarship, alert to the shortcomings of naïve positivism, has shifted away from biography toward what might be termed meta-biography, examining the prevailing social, cultural, and religious forces shaping biographical accounts. 

Barry Hotz’s well-written but conceptually uneven Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud, is aware of the methodological problematic of the genre, but struggles to come to terms with its implications. The book opens with a flair, as Holtz invites us to “think of the Babylonian Talmud not as we usually do ... But rather as a massive, multivolume, postmodern experimental novel. Wilder than Moby-Dick, beyond the imagination of James Joyce, more self-referential than anything dreamed up by David Foster Wallace” (1). But two paragraphs later, the literary-theoretical approach is replaced by the uncritical claim that Rabbi Akiva, “is the apotheosis of the deeper values of ‘rabbinic Judaism,’ the essential manifestation of Jewish religion that first evolved in the first and second centuries of the Common Era” (2). This shift sets the tone for the book as a whole. On the one hand, Holtz repeatedly characterizes his enterprise as “imagined biography” (12) and affirms that since “it is impossible to reconstruct the ‘true’ biography of Rabbi Akiva” the book will explore “why the Jewish tradition has chosen to preserve these tales across the generations” (36-37). On the other hand, the book regularly employs the language of positivistic biography, characterizing its focus as “the figure of Akiva as best we can uncover his life and personality” (12), or claiming that a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud “gives us a remarkable moment of insight into Akiva’s inner life” (119). 

As a non-academic introduction to the figure of Rabbi Akiva, the book has much to recommend. Holtz writes in a clear, mellifluous style and the book is a pleasure to read. After an introductory chapter on the cultural and political context of the 2nd century rabbinic world, the book surveys the main episodes in Rabbi Akiva’s “imagined” biography: his entry into rabbinic study, the love and sacrifice of his wife, the Pardes (“Orchard”) narrative, and his martyrdom. Interspersed are chapters devoted to his figure as a scholar and his relationship with his fellow sages. The result is a “greatest hits” of rabbinic narratives involving Rabbi Akiva and his dicta, with helpful context and thoughtful commentary provided throughout. It should be noted Holtz may have the lay reader in mind. His goal is not “to take the academic scholar’s approach” (37), and where he does introduce academic scholarship, it is generally without a meaningful engagement of its claims and ramifications (as happens to me at page 187)—issues of marginal importance to a lay audience. 

All the same, Rabbi Akiva is written by a professor and published by a university press, so readers may reasonably assume it to be a work of academic scholarship, a premise on which it fares more poorly. For one, Holtz ignores basic philological distinctions, stitching together chronologically and geographically disparate sources: 2nd century tannaitic sources are paired with post-Talmudic works (e.g., Tractate Semahot), Palestinian law with Babylonian legend. Gaps and contradictions within and between passages are noted, but Holtz never interrogates the religious and cultural forces that give rise to them. Moreover, the book is singularly uninterested in any broader, non-Jewish context: there is no mention of Hellenistic, Roman, or Sassanian culture, of early Christianity, Babylonian Zoroastrianism, or any other potentially illuminating context. Holtz justifies this approach by invoking “tradition,” as his “imagined biography” is tantamount to the portrait(s) of Rabbi Akiva as encoded in classical rabbinic sources (Hekhalot literature—a rich repository of material on Rabbi Akiva—receives perfunctory mention). Can sayings and deeds attributed to Rabbi Akiva in later sources count as “Akivan”? It does not matter, since “later Jewish history has offered a judgment on the Akivan legacy no matter what the ‘real’ Akiva may or may not have said” (174). And if there is no historical evidence that Roman authorities banned Torah study—a theme that recurs in certain Akiva cycles—no matter: “the idea of a ban on Torah has come down to us through tradition” (163). Toward the end of the book, Holtz holds up Ahad Ha’am’s essay on Moses as a model, an essay in which Ahad Ha’am argued that what matters about Moses’s life is not the historical accuracy of the biblical account, but rather its historical influence on later generations. As Holtz writes, “what ends up being truly important is the shared memory of a people down through the ages” (190). 

All of which is inadequate in two ways. First, while Holtz is correct that the empirical Rabbi Akiva is unrecoverable, subsuming the varied and often contradictory Akiva sources under the irenic heading of “tradition” replaces a naïve and uncritical concept of “biography” with a naïve and uncritical notion of “tradition.” A more meaningful engagement would seek to lay bare the political, cultural, and religious stakes involved in the varied biographical representations of Rabbi Akvia that make up the tradition. Second, Holtz frames his study as a specifically Jewish undertaking. Ahad Ha’am was the leader of cultural Zionism and wrote “Moses” to further his variety of Jewish-nationalism. It is quite a different matter when an academic press publishes a book whose guiding methodological principle is the internal-Jewish “shared memory of a people.” In failing to uncover both the underlying cultural dynamics and the broader scholarly relevance of the Rabbi Akiva sources, Holtz’s book, despite its undeniable qualities, is a missed opportunity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Azzan Yadin-Israel is Professor of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Barry W. Holtz is Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is author of five previous books and the recipient of a National Jewish Book Award. He lives in New York City.



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