My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an important book if you are interested in Judaism or Jewish history, or Jewish. The main thing it does is takes the million Rabbis you’ve heard of and organizes them in your head: Who lives when, whose student is whom, where they taught, how they were related and how they interacted with each other. When reading about them in the scriptures these things are never clear, and one can easily get the illusion that they sit around a table and discuss things, although many of the characters at that table lived in different times. Each Rabbi is depicted as unique, so it is impossible after reading this book to forget who Rabbi Akiva studied with and who his students were.
Yochi Brandes takes the time period (70-135 A.D.) with its central characters and brings it to life. She reframes the famous stories we already knew, telling them from a different point of view or using her imagination to explain missing details. Because the stories are familiar, the book is engaging from the first page to the last, and often surprising when she presents a different view on a story you thought you knew. The language is not pure literary Hebrew (probably why I managed to read the book), it is diluted with references from the Bible and the Mishnah, so that famous phrases will jump out at you and often help you get deeper into a character’s mind by understanding what their situation reminds them of.
The book takes you on a journey through the lives of these beloved characters. Through their experiences the foundation of modern Judaism begins to bud. The author uses the lifestyles of the leaders of the time in order to critique the way we interpret Jewish laws today. For example, where the privilege of studying torah full time and not working was once reserved for the wealthy, today it is common for people to choose not to work and accept their poverty as a consequence. One rabbi may have emphatically objected to teaching Torah to women, but the fact that other rabbis in his own time taught their daughters teaches us that there was never a consensus on the matter, and no excuse for the concept that the Torah solely belongs to men. There is much conflict regarding the relationship which develops with Christianity, which was just beginning to blossom at the time and had not yet been declared its own religion, but it’s clear that while some rabbis believe they should be shunned, others believe that there is nothing more important than keeping peace with those who are different, whether or not they are Jewish. A main theme throughout the book is the changing of the Jewish religion – mainly the removal of God from the religion. You might be raising your eyebrows but truth be told, we don’t realize how much less the concept of God is present in our religion now than it was back then. The temple was still standing until 70 A.D. Prophets and miracles were common and accessible. The teachings of Rabbi Akiva were revolutionary in the way that they took the Torah from heaven and brought it down to earth, where it is now ours to interpret whichever way suits us best. The free interpretation is a controversial topic these days, but it is clear from the book that it shouldn’t be. According to Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues, we are allowed to understand it in our own way.
The book is told from the perspective of the famous Rabbi Akiva’s wife, Rachel. Jewish scriptures describe their loved her as passionate and romantic. They say that although they were poor, he promised to give her Jerusalem of Gold. We know that Rabbi Akiva leaves her for twelve years to study Torah. One sources says that at the end of twelve years he came home with a trail of thousands of students, and before he saw her, turned on his heels and returned for an additional twelve years. I was glad that this approach was not followed in the book. Brandes describes Akiva and Rachel’s relationship as romantic at first. Then Rachel begins to pressure her husband to travel to the Yeshiva and study torah, believing (correctly) that he is gifted. As a man who learned to read at age forty, Akiva begrudgingly leaves, swearing not to return until he becomes a Rabbi. This aspect of the relationship was difficult for me to swallow, because we see it so often in ultra-orthodox couples. Rachel is the image of the original ultra-orthodox woman, whose only wish is for her husband to study, and works around the clock to support her family on her own. Akiva is the original ultra-orthodox man, forswearing contact with women and immersing himself in his studies. The phrase often attributed to Rabbi Akiva, “Love your neighbor like yourself,” stands in contrast with many decisions his character makes in the book.
The ending is difficult, even for those who know how the lives of these Rabbis ended. It seems that the cruelty of the Roman Empire knows no limits. Each one of ten famous rabbis of the time died tortured, humiliating public deaths at the hands of the Romans (Jesus being nailed to a cross doesn’t even come close to what these guys went through). It seems like in the last chapter, the entire world turns upside down. The horrors are impossible to digest. Read it anyway.