Forgotten Jewish Texts #2 – Moses & Rabbi Akiba

Talmud Menachot 29b

Rav Yehuda quoted Rav: When Moses ascended to the heights [to receive the Torah] he found God sitting and drawing crowns upon the letters. Moses said to God, “Master of the Universe, what is staying Your hand [from giving me the Torah unadorned]?”

God replied, “There is a man who will arise many generations in the future, his name is Akiva ben Yosef. He will interpret mound upon mound of halachot (laws) from each and every marking.”

Moses requested, “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” God said, “Turn backwards [and you will see him].”

Moses [found himself in R. Akiva’s classroom where he] sat at the back of the eighth row. He didn’t understand what they were talking about and felt weak. Then, they came to a matter about which the students asked Akiva, “Rabbi, how do you know this?” He told them, “It is the [oral] law given to Moses at Sinai.” Moses felt relieved.

He returned to God and said, “Master of the Universe, you have a person like this and [still You choose to] give the Torah through my hands?” God replied, “Silence! This is according to My plan.”

Moses said, “Master of the Universe, you’ve shown me his teaching (Torah), show me his reward.” God said, “Turn [backwards and you may see it]. Moses turned around and beheld [the Roman torturers] weighing his [Akiva’s] flesh on the market scales. He said to God, “Master of the Universe, that was his Torah and this is his reward!?”
God said, “Silence! This is according to My plan”.

Why was this text not taught? The first part of the story suggests that the Torah and laws did not emanate from Sinai in their final form. While this may be obvious, given the volumes upon volumes of interpretation written over the centuries, traditionalists have insisted upon the “oral law” being given along with the written Torah. This text challenges that viewpoint, acknowledging that even Moses didn’t understand the “Torah” that was being taught in the academy of Akiba.

The second part of the text raises a problematic issue: By the Talmudic era, the idea of individual reward and punishment from God for our behavior had become part of the Jewish religion (in the Torah era, almost all reward and punishment was national / communal). Yet, Akiba, despite his Torah scholarship and teachings, is tortured and killed during the era of the Hadrianic persecutions.

What is the lesson to be learned (Why should this text be taught)? The first part of the text sets a belief in a Torah that is given to and by Moses and yet, at the same time, is subject to reinterpretation and innovation. It disproves the idea that all interpretations were given “at Sinai”, as the Talmud shows us that even Moses cannot recognize how the Torah has changed in the study hall of Rabbi Akiba. This text opens the way for teaching and discussion about the nature of a Torah that is both “given at Sinai” but also changing.

The second part of this text is understood as the contemporary question of “why do bad things happen to good people.” From the time of the Book of Job through Harold Kushner’s book on Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, Jewish philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this question. What a great way to help students today to grapple with it!

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