Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Akiba: Mystic and Miracle-Worker

[Lied der Lieder, by E.M. Lilien]

Of all the esoteric heroes of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba (1st-2nd Century) stands alone. Mentioned no less than 250 times in the Mishna alone, legends about him are legion, beginning with the story that he began life as an illiterate shepherd, only began his Torah studies in middle age, and went on to become the outstanding Sage of his generation (with 24,000 students who followed him around like the Verizon guy). His relationship with his wife, Rachel, is one of the few love stories told in the Talmud.

He is most important for his significant contributions to the shaping of Jewish law. But he is also the archetypal rabbinic mystic. His declaration: "The whole Torah is Holy….but The Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies." (Mishna Yadaim 3:5) is the locus classicus for the interpretation of this book as an erotic theology of the love between God and Israel and inspired generations of spiritual seekers to probe the meaning of that strange book of the Bible.

There are also a number of manifestly paranormal stories about him, including the cryptic tale of the Four Sages, one of the most analysed narratives of the Talmud:

Four men entered pardes [literally, “paradise,” but its connotation is debated]: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [that is, Elisha ben Abuya], and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher cut the roots; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace (Chagigah 14b).

Variant forms of this legend add details, some clarifying, some as obscure as the stripped-down original. My favorite has Akiba adding this cautionary warning before they begin: "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)." Eh?

I can’t even begin to summarize the diverse explanations offered for the terms “pardes” (Ascent into heaven? Entering the mystical secrets of Torah? A critique of different rabbinic strategies for interpretation?), or “cut the roots” (Apostasy? Gnostic heresy? Auto-castration?), or the “pure marble stones.” This may be the Holy of Holies of mystical fables.

Other stories make him out to be a miraculous rain-maker (Taanit 25b) and able to commune with ghosts and exorcise them (Seder Eliyahu Zuta). All of them indicate he was a person of towering spiritual achievement.

To learn more consult the: Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


Anonymous Anonymous said...

who was the rabbi that was able to survive without food (or only on vinigar i dont really remember the story)... was it akiba?

2:27 AM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

See my entry on Chanina ben Dosa

1:04 PM  

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