What can we learn from a figure in Jewish textual tradition?
Compared favorably to Moses in the Talmud, raised in a family of converts, unlettered in Jewish scholarship until he was 40, my favorite Talmudic player by far is Rabbi Akiva.
Having been raised by secular Jews, proud of their heritage but absolute in their atheism, I did not begin my own exploration of Jewish texts and practices until I was in my early 30s. When I felt called to the rabbinate in my late 30s, Rabbi Akiva was an inspiration. If he could start in mid-life, so could I!
Akiva’s choice of Shir HaShirim/the Song of Solomon as our “Holy of Holies,” our scripture’s deepest place of connection to G-d, sealed his fate as my role model. In seeing our canon’s love song between Israel and G-d, a text that depicts human love in profoundly romantic, spiritually elevated language as a metaphor for our love of G-d, Akiva chose love as the core of
Torah. He chose passion as the center of our relationship with Holiness. He declared as sanctified both spiritual love and embodied love both.
Rabbi Akiva was also the ultimate performer of civil disobedience. When the penalty for teaching Torah was death, he taught in the public square. Unafraid, even as he was being tortured to death, when he said his final “Shma” his amazed students asked how he could be present with such piety while such horrors were being done to him. “All my life,” he said, “I waited for the opportunity to show how much I love God, and now that I have the opportunity should I waste it?” Berachot 61b tells us that he died with the word “One” on his lips. Deeply spiritual and legally rigorous at the same time, Rabbi Akiva teaches that when keva and kavanah, structure and intention, are combined, transcendence is possible. Only this kind of soul could enter Pardes/Paradise? Heaven? in peace and depart in peace. In our aggadic tradition, only this soul did.
Rabbi Debra Kolodny is the spiritual leader of Congregation P’nai Or, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Portland