Talmudic reading of Menachot 29b: Zoo Torah, ve-zu scharah?

R’ Yehuda said in the name of Rav:
When Moshe ascended to the heavens, he saw God sitting and tying crowns to the letters [of the Torah].
Moshe asked, “What’s the hold up [i.e., why can’t you give the Torah as is]?
God replied, “there’s a man who will be in the future, after many generations, named Akiva b. Yosef, who will find in every jot and tittle mounds of halachot.
Moshe said, “Master of the Universe, show him to me!”
God said, “Turn around”
Moses went and sat in the eighth row of students in R’ Akiva’s class, and had no idea what they were saying. His strength deflated.
The class asked R’ Akiba about a certain matter, “From whence to you know this?” He replied, “It is a Law transmitted to Moshe at Sinai. Moshe’s mind was put at ease.
Moshe turned to God, “if you have someone like this, why are you giving the Torah through me?”
God said, “Silence! This is what arose in my thoughts!”
Moshe continued, “Master of the Universe! You’ve showed me his Teaching, now show me his reward.”
God said, “Turn around”
He turned around and saw that R’ Akiva’s flesh was being weighed out in the marketplace.
Moshe confronted God: “This is Torah and this is its reward?!”
God said, “Silence! This is what arose in my thoughts!”

It’s a pretty well known narrative, as its implications for the evolution of the Oral Law are profound. I’ve found, however, that most are content to deal with the first part of the story without relating to the last part.

Two key points that I think point to an explanation of this Gemara:
· · God’s ‘answer’ is identical for both of Moshe’s challenges. I think that God’s answer really is an answer, not a n excuse for cruelty and arbitrariness, but one that Moshe was perhaps ill-equipped to grasp, much as he was ill-equipped to grasp R’ Akiva’s shiur. In which case, we need to figure out what Moshe lacked in his understanding.
· · The image of R’ Akiva’s flesh is shown in response to Moshe’s request to see R’ Akiva’s reward. The Gemara is clearly saying that this is R’ Akiva’s reward. This horrible death is his payment for his Torah. We. Like Moshe, are bothered by this.

Here goes my (abbreviated) attempt to make sense of it:

Moshe was a Prophet. THE Prophet. His knowledge of the Torah was completely whole and intuitive. He was as close as a man can get to sharing a mind with God.

As history unfolded, the role of the prophet in determining God’s will for the Jewish people diminished and was replaced by Torah study. The original, intuitive state of affairs was replaced by formulae and proscriptions. What we lacked in intuitive clarity and shared meaning, we compensated with our intellectual endeavor.

R’ Akiva is considered the greatest contributor to that endeavor of all times. His development of the methods by which the Torah is studied, his absolute commitment to Torah study, his confidence in the security of a Jewish future through Torah study, and his insistence on perpetuating Torah study have made him the hero of the Mishna, the brightest star in our large constellation of Rabbis.

Of course Moshe couldn’t understand R’ Akiva’s shiur! For the same reason that the Rambam wouldn’t be able to understand R’ Hayyim’s shiur (aside from the Yiddish)! R’ Akiva is taking a microscope to look for meaning in every last dot in a text whose meaning for Moshe was as intuitive as Dr. Suess! Moshe is disheartened until he knows that this exposition that seems so foreign to him is actually the direct continuation of the work that he’s starting.
Thus, he asks God why, if the Torah is destined to undergo such radical development, will be mined for shades of meaning that Moshe and his generation couldn’t have dreamt of, remains his Torah.
God’s response – ‘kach alah be-machshava’ – indicates that this is what must be. In this world, a Moshe is a prerequisite for a R’ Akiva, Rashi for Tosafot, Rambam for R’ Hayyim, and childhood for adulthood. As crazy as it sounds, G-d response was akin to a parent telling his child “you’ll understand when you get older”. Moshe’s complete absorption into God’s mind, his total immersion in prophecy, made him unable to approach Torah as would R’ Akiva – a late bloomer, a descendant of Haman, whose own relationship to Torah began as and remained an adult one. But the Torah must be given to children, to the dependent and infantile generation of Moshe, and not to the rebellious and cocksure generation of R’ Akiva. If they resisted the rule of Rome, they certainly wouldn’t have taken the imposition of the Torah’s demands lying down.

And R’ Akiva’s ‘reward’ is to be skinned alive. That’s his destiny. The hero of Torah She-be’al Peh ripped to shreds in the marketplace. This is Torah and this is her reward?

The answer is the same. The transition from childhood into adulthood demands a rebellion, an independence of mind, a willingness to reestablish old relationships on one’s own terms. R’ Akiva, by furthering the cause of Torah by speaking it and teaching his understanding of it come what may, invited disaster upon himself. Such a person will always be misunderstood, antagonized, and figuratively if not literally, torn to shreds and cut down to size in public opinion.
Such is the fate of innovative thinkers who insist on being true to themselves. Such was the fate of Socrates. Such was the fate of Galileo. Martin Luther King Jr. Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Such was the fate of the Rambam, Ramchal, R’ Kook, and R’ Soloveitchik. The path to the future is a dangerous one for all those who dare blaze it. And so it must be, for the very same reasons that the generation of Moshe must receive the Torah, and for the very same reasons that childhood precedes adulthood.

I will end by mentioning a friend of mine who is paying a price for bringing his love, creativity, and intellect to bear (no pun intended) upon his relationship to Torah. I hope that this Aggadah provides some comfort to R’ Natan Slifkin – the Zoo Rabbi – as he faces those who wish to silence his Torah.

[To St. Olaf students - good luck on your midterm paper].


Anonymous said...

self hater -
i think you've gone too far.
though you say they will be slayed physically or figuratively the gemara really is talking about a physical killing and i think you have reduced a little bit the enormity of the kashya on hkb"h for the killing of r' akiva by putting it in a figurative context.
- tel talpiot

ADDeRabbi said...

no question the slaying of R' Akiva was a real historical event, and a horrific one at that. however, Moshe did not witness any 'historical' event, the Gemara is not relating to it as a 'historical' event, and the literary symbolism of R' Akiba's flesh being weighed out and sold in the marketplace can't be ignored, and r' akiba's actual death is not addressed.
i'm not trying- nor is the gemara trying - to minimize the enormity of r' akiba's death sentence for teaching Torah publicly. however, i understand that the Gemara sees R' Akiva's heroic death as the unfortunate but human conclusion of his heroic life.

Anonymous said...

>> I hope that this Aggadah provides some comfort to R’ Natan Slifkin

Comfort ??? The fate of innovative thinkers is to be chopped to bits. Thats very comforting.

ADDeRabbi said...

the comfort that it's God's will, that it's part of a grand scheme, that humans have a tendency to shoot the messengers of God.

Anonymous said...

G-ds will or not, still not comforting to be chopped to bits.

Chris Hennick said...

Maybe Akiva ascended to a higher plane of existence and doesn't *need* his mortal flesh anymore?