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Rabbi Akiba’s Hidden Love Life

(Picture: Madam Turnus Rufus probably looked something like Hedy Lamaar!)

One of the most illustrious sages of the Talmudic era is Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (ca.40-ca.137 CE). His life-story has inspired many legends and in many ways Rabbi Akiva’s approach to the interpreting the biblical text has become the foundation for many of the mystical interpretations that have evolved over the centuries. For R. Akiba, the Torah is a love letter from God; every scintilla of the biblical text contains esoteric meanings.

According to legend, Akiba began as a humble and ignorant shepherd. When he was 40 years old, his life took an unexpected turn. According to one ancient tradition, Rabbi Akiba observed how water-droplets had formed a hole through a stone. He mused, ‘If water could leave an imprint on a stone, then surely the words of Torah can penetrate my heart as well.”

A Love Story for the Ages: Rachel and Akiba

However, a different legend purports that the young shepherd had fallen in love with Rachel, ‘the daughter of Kalba Savua’one of the wealthiest Jews of his time during the final days of the Second Temple. ‘Akiba had worked for Kalba as a shepherd and that is how he met Rachel. Despite Akiva’s unfamiliarity with the Torah, there was something remarkable about him; she agreed to marry Akiva on one condition: He had to study Torah for a period of ‘twelve years. ‘Together, they had a quiet clandestine wedding.

As it might have been expected, Kalba did not approve of his daughter marrying such an ignorant man, and he swore that he would not offer any financial support; the young couple were reduced to poverty. She sent Akiba to study for twelve years ‘under the tutelage of R. Eliezer and R. Joshua. When R. Akiba ventured home, he now as a distinguished scholar who had a following of 12,000 students, Akiba overhears a conversation between Rachel and her friends. They said to her, ‘Rachel, how much longer will you live the life of a widow, knowing that your husband is alive but absent’’ She replied, ‘‘If he would listen to me, he would go back [to his place of sacred studies] for another 12 years.’

Twelve years later, R. Akiba has now 24,000 students who escort their teacher. When the townspeople hear about his imminent arrival, they all come out to greet him—including  Rachel! But poor Rachel looked poor and impoverished, dressed in rags. When she approached her husband, the students try to prevent her from speaking with their teacher. R. Akiba instructs his students to stop and says “What ‘is mine and what is yours—all belongs to her!”

All of the townspeople come out to greet him. So does his wife, who appears in ragged clothes and who refuses to heed the advice of her neighbors who suggest that she borrow suitable attire. When his students catch sight of her, they try to prevent her from approaching Rabbi Akiva. However, he immediately calls a stop to their efforts (using one of the shortest and most beautiful statements to describe their mutual relationship): “What is mine and what is yours – belongs to her!”[1]

The narrative implies that they lived happily ever after as a couple in what appears to be a storybook-like ending crafted in Hollywood.’ Maybe they did live happily ever after.

Deconstructing Rabbi Akiba’s Love Life

Using a hermeneutic of suspicion that is so typical of postmodern approaches to literature in general, and to the Bible in particular, we might ask the unthinkable question that no yeshiva student would dare ask his Talmud teacher: What if Akiba and Rachel did not get along after his return home? What if they had grown apart all these years and now they had become two different people?

Obviously, this approach might sound something like you might read in the ancient Judean equivalent of the National Inquiry. However, the lives of famous people often end differently from what people might expect. [2] A third tradition about Rabbi Akiba indicates that he took yet another wife.

Unfortunately, we do not know when exactly Akiba took a second wife. Conceivably, his beloved Rachel may have predeceased her husband. That is a possibility no reader of Akiba’s biography can deny. Perhaps they might have grown apart.

Enter Madam Turnus Rufus

In the third legend, we discover an altogether different story about R. Akiba’s love life, one that certainly raises questions. The Roman general of Judea in R. Akiba’s time was a man named Turnus Rufus. Despite the Roman disdain for Jews in general, it appears that Turnus Rufus and R. Akiba frequently had theological and philosophical discussions together. They jostle together on topics pertaining to circumcision,[3] the Sabbath[4], and the Jewish concept of ‘idolaters,’[5] as well as to the importance of giving charity to the poor.[6] In the midrashic narratives, R. Akiba always emerges as the victor (How could it be otherwise’)

For whatever the reason might have been, R. Akiba serendipitously meets Turnus Rufus’s wife. Medieval rabbinical exegetes suggest that Madam Rufus heard her husband complain about losing one debate after another to R. Akiba. ‘She says to him:

  • She said to him: “The God of those people hates licentiousness. Just give me your permission and I will trip him up and cause him to sin.” He gave his permission. She put on her makeup and, wearing most attractive attire, she went to see R. Akiba’[7]

To make a long story short, Madam Rufus dumps her hubby and converts to Judaism and marries Rabbi Akiba! Would today’s Haredi rabbis would have approved of such circumstances’ I doubt it. If such behavior occurred today between Israel’s leading  Haredi rabbi and a Gentile woman, the news-story would create shockwaves across Israeli society. In the end, Turnus Rufus oversees the torturing of Rabbi Akiba. For Turnus Rufus, this matter was personal.

Did R. Akiba have an affair’ Did he seduce her’ Yes, inquiring minds want to know.’ Strangely, Rachel is not mentioned ever again. As for Madam Rufus/ Akiba, one wonders whether her husband had her killed as well. We can only speculate.

Mishnaic Evidence’

In the Mishnah we find an unusual discussion:

  • The Academy of Shammai said:’A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity, since it is said, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in anything’(Deut. 24:1).’And the Academy of Hillel said: Even if she spoiled his dish, since it is said, because he has found in her indecency—in anything.’R. Akiba says: Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes’(Deut. 24:1).[8]

Hillel’s perspective is problematical; just because a wife may not measure up to the ideal model of Martha Stewart or Donna Reed, doesn’t mean that she ought to be so easily disposed. Perhaps all she needs is a cleaning person or a cook to assist her or tutor in the ‘skill of homemaking. At least Shammai’s perspective is certainly consistent with the simple meaning of the text.

However, Rabbi Akiba’s attitude if taken literally without the Talmud’s spin on his opinion may have been predicated on more than just a scriptural verse that he cited. Is it possible that R. Akiba may have preferred Madam Rufus precisely because she was prettier and sexier than poor Rachel’ If the scandalous interpretation of this Mishnah is true, it may explain why R. Akiba met such a dreadful death where his skin was flayed off his body. The flaying of Akiba’s skin may be an allusion to the verse, “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24). Since Akiba destroyed his marriage by marrying another man’s wife, his flesh is literally torn apart–and could be viewed as tallionic justice (measure for measure).

One is reminded of the scriptural verse from the Prophet Malachi, which may well apply to Rabbi Akiba:

  • And this you do as well: You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand. You ask, ‘Why does he not’’ Because the Lord was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did not one God make her both flesh and spirit are his. And what does the one God desire’ Godly offspring. So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless (Malachi 2:13-16).

This exposition of Rabbi Akiba’s life will obviously strike a raw nerve in the minds of many of my blog’s readers–especially students of the Talmud. ‘But given the complexity of human relationships, Rabbi Akiba was still a man of flesh and flood endowed with the same passions that have caused considerable havoc in the lives of men since time immemorial.

 


Notes:

[1]‘ BT Ketuboth 62b-63a; ‘BT Nedarim 50a.

[2] This was certainly the case with Moses, who receives a tongue-lashing from his sister Miriam and brother Aaron, who objected to him taking a second wife from an Ethiopian community (Numbers 12:1).’ Although Rashi and other midrashic texts argue that Tsiporah was the Kushite woman alluded to in the verse, other commentaries take a different perspective: for whatever the reason, Moses took a different wife aside from Tsiporah. Some might not view Moses’ behavior in flattery terms, but who are we to pry into Moses’ private life.

[3] Midrash Tanhuma (Buber ed.), Tazria , c. 7.

[4] BT Sanhedrin ‘65b; Gen. Rabbah 11:5; Tanhuma, Ki Tissa, c. 33; PR 23:8.

[5] Midrash Tanhuma, Terumah, c. 3.

[6] BT Bava Bathra 10a.

[7] BT Avodah Zara 10b and 20a; R. Nissim and Rashi’s commentaries on BT Nedarim 50a-b.

[8] Mishnah: Gittin 9:10



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