Moshe and R. Akiva as Givers of Torah

The following is the outline for the shiur that I am giving tonight. Many of the elements are based on what I wrote many years ago here, but I obviously think differently about some things now. The text is from Menachot 29b.
R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe ascended to the heavens, he found God sitting and tying crowns to the letters. He said: “Master of the Universe, who is holding You back?” He answered, “There will arise a man in the distant future, Akiva b. Yoseph by name, who will derive heaps of laws from each jot.”

·        According to R. Zadok, Keter is the “space between the lines.” Moshe was given a text and mastery of the text. The Torah was given at a particular time and place, and its meaning was particularly comprehensible to that time and place. Over time, as conditions changed and the laws of the Written Torah no longer addressed elements of their lives and prophets were no longer present to provide guidance directly from God. Torah study replaced prophecy. This is the beginning of the development of Torah She-ba’al Peh, which reaches its zenith in the generations after the Churban, with R. Akiva. In order generate new meaning from the Torah, he had to search between the lines of the text – in the margins and in context. Keter is also a kabbalistic concept that refers to the sublime unity that undergirds all of reality, the oneness of God that unifies all of the multiplicities of this world. Moshe never had to seek that oneness because everything was cut and dried for him. There is no machloket in Torah she-biktav. R. Akiva, who had a profound encounter with machloket in the form of his 2 rebbeim, R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua, was challenged to find the Divine unity underlying difference. This he was doresh the ketarim, he sought a framework that would allow for the Torah’s development even as it countenanced dispute.

“Master of the Universe, permit me to see him.” He replied, “Turn around.”

·        “Front” and “back” together constitute a mystical category. “Front” refers to the direct visual recognition of something, what we might call gestalt, that does not necessarily know the particular details. It’s a whole picture. The “back” is something that requires more detail for recognition to occur. Greater scrutiny. In terms of Torah, Moshe’s knowledge was of “front” – he spoke with God “Panim el Panim,” whereas R. Akiva’s knowledge was from a greater distance, piecing together an image without having gotten a good look. To get to R. Akiva, Moshe has to turn around, turn away from God’s face. R. Zadok connects R. Akiva here with Otniel ben Knaz, who similarly reconstructed Torah that was forgotten in the generation after Moshe with his intellect. This pattern of reason displacing revelation recurs throughout history.

Moshe went and sat down behind eight rows of students, and he did not know what they were saying. He was deflated.

·        Eight rows – back of the classroom, like first, second, etc. violin.
·        Based on the above, we understand full well why Moshe could not understand R. Akiva’s shiur. R. Akiva’s Torah was completely unrecognizable from the perspective of the Written Torah. It goes further, too; I have very little doubt that the Rambam would be lost in a shiur by R. Chaim Brisker, even though the latter is essentially expounding on the writings of the former. This is almost built into the process of development of the Oral Torah, as we shall see.
·        Another point – some have tried to mitigate this implication, the idea that Moshe’s knowledge of Torah was incomplete, by suggesting that he simply hadn’t been given the Torah yet. This clearly goes against the thrust of the Gemara. The Gemara is trying to be provocative by saying this, challenging us.
·        Moshe is anxious because he is afraid that the Torah will suffer discontinuity. If the giver of the Torah does not recognize R. Akiva’s Torah, then in what sense is it the Torah?

But when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said, “Rebbi, what is your source for that?” and he replied, “It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai,” he was comforted.

·        This is an almost mythic moment. Not only are Moshe and R. Akiva the quintessential givers of Torah – Moshe of the Written and R. Akiva of the Oral – they’re, to an extent, opposites. Moshe’s children did not follow in his footsteps, and R. Akiva’s parents were converts. There is no greater statement of the fact that the Torah is not a birthright. R. Tzadok speaks about the special love of Torah that a convert has – the Torah is revealed through them (Yitro, Rut, R’ Akiva); they give up the ‘easy life’ to come to Torah. R. Akiva is even possibly a descendant of Haman (mibnei banav…). His Torah even constitutes, on some level, an act of rebellion against God (nitzchuni banai…), an insistence on relying upon his own intellect to create new meanings – and not necessarily even correct meanings – from God’s Torah. Moshe’s comfort here lies in the fact that their greatness finds expression through his Torah. He is able to bridge to future generations not by heredity, but through the encounter of his Torah with the fresh, eager minds of those who are drawn to Torah through pure love.
·        Perhaps Moshe also takes comfort in the fact that this development remains anchored to his Torah. In the mind, everything is possible. R. Meir’s students could give 150 reasons why the forbidden should be permitted. But there remains an anchor – be it the Written Torah or more importantly tradition – that forces the Torah to adopt a practical dimension. After the theoretical shiur klali, there must be a bottom line. Someone must tell the Jews what to do. This, too, is the legacy of Moshe.
·        Finally, the fact that R. Akiva attributes his position to Moshe shows that despite the changes, there is a continuity. It might not be a straight line of development, and at some point it may become unrecognizable, but the chain is unbroken. Every part of the ship of Theseus may have been replaced, but we’ve been sailing on it the whole time, so we treat it as the same ship.

Thereupon he returned to God and asked, “Master of the Universe, You have such a person, yet You are giving the Torah through me?”

·        If this is the future of the Torah, why not skip straight to that? Why can’t the Torah be given in the form that R. Akiva would put it in? Why not skip straight to the Mishna Berura, or what have you, and dispense with the whole Written/Oral dichotomy?

He replied, “Be silent; thus it arose in My thought.”

·        God’s answer really is an answer. It’s not merely “because I said so,” although we have the advantage of hindsight that Moshe did not have. 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.” There must be a naïve, almost childlike acceptance of the Torah before one can begin to wrestle with it. 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, to descendants of Haman. This relates to the na’aseh/nishma dichotomy that we discussed last year – there must be an uncritical consent to act before true understanding can begin to happen. Had God held the mountain over the likes of a R. Akiva, He might not have gotten away with it. This process of acceptance followed by grappling is part of God’s plan. God gave man the ability to seek and discover and create with his intellect. In order for the Torah to develop through the channels of a developed mind, it must first be embedded in the mind before it begins to develop. This is what arose in God’s thoughts.

Then Moshe asked, “Master of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, now show me his reward.’ He said, “Turn around.” Moshe turned around and saw them weighing out his flesh at the market-stalls.

·        Is this ‘the reward?” Why did God show him that? It seems that God is playing a cruel joke on Moshe. Is this really R. Akiva’s reward?

 “Master of the Universe,” he cried, “this is the Torah, and this is the reward??!” He replied, “Be silent; thus it arose in My thought.”

·        I think that God’s answer really is an answer, and it is essentially the same as the previous answer. This is the downside of development and of intellectual creativity. Rabbi Akiva was flayed for the same reason that he was able to give a shiur that Moshe could not understand. His fate is truly the “payment” for his Torah. R. Akiva represents the emergence of the Torah from childhood into adulthood. As many can attest, this transition is a form of 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 own understanding of it – even at the risk of his own life - invited disaster. 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 pushing the limits of human thought. Such was the fate of Socrates. Such was the fate of Galileo. Martin Luther King Jr., and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Such was also 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. In God’s plan for the world, development follows acceptance and adulthood follows childhood – but there is a price to be paid for making that transition.

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