How is Rabbi Akiva best known to us? Through the story in the Pesach Haggadah about the rabbis staying up all night studying the exodus from Egypt? Through Rabbi Akiva’s assertion that the Song of Songs is the holiest of the Writings? Or do we know him through the Talmudic legend about the four sages who entered the Pardes and only Rabbi Akiva ‘entered in peace and departed in peace’?Rabbi Akiva was born in Judea sometime before the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in 132 CE. Unlearned in Torah in his early years, he worked as a shepherd. He fell in love with Rachel, the daughter of a wealthy Jerusalemite. Rachel made marriage contingent upon Akiva going out to study Torah, even though he was beginning relatively late in life. Rachel’s father opposed the marriage and he cut the couple off financially, so they descended into poverty.Though he came late to rabbinic scholarship, Akiva was highly regarded amongst the rabbinic sages. When a dispute between Rabban Gamliel II and Rabbi Joshua caused such uproar in the community of scholars that Rabban Gamliel was temporarily removed from office, Rabbi Akiva was considered for possible succession. Following the incident, Rabbi Akiva was sent to reconcile the two rabbis.In the dramatic events surrounding the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages over the ritual purity of Achnai’s oven (and the underlying arguments about the nature of law and authority), Rabbi Akiva was the one to convey to Rabbi Eliezer that he had been excommunicated by his colleagues.Rabbi Akiva was also deeply affected by the violence of Roman rule over the Land of Israel and was a supporter of Bar Kochba, the leader of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 132CE. Rabbi Akiva associated Bar Kochba with the Messiah and believed that he would liberate the Jewish people from foreign rule.Both mystic and halachist, in time Rabbi Akiva became a leading contributor to rabbinic literature. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Akiva is called ‘one of the fathers of the world’ for his work in systematising the legal and legendary midrashim and the principles for their organisation.A story of a debate about the ‘great principles of Torah’ places Rabbi Akiva at the centre of rabbinic discourse. ‘Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were [in discussion]’¦[when] this question was asked of them: [Is] study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.’ (T.B. Kiddushin 40b)The rabbis are debating whether Jewish tradition is one primarily devoted to a life of deeds or to the life of the mind. It ends with a compromise agreeable to all sides, that both study and action are essential. Indeed, Rabbi Akiva was dedicated both to a life of the mind in his teaching Torah scholars, the systematisation of halacha and creative interpretation of the written and oral Torahs, and to a life of action spent in defence of the Torah and the Jewish people.
Rabbi Daniella Kolodny is a member of New North London Synagogue and is the former Rabbinic Development Consultant for Masorti Judaism