Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rabbi Akiva's homily on Teshuva

משנה - מסכת יומא: "אמר רבי עקיבה, אשריכם ישראל, לפני מי אתם מיטהרין ומי מטהר אתכם--אביכם שבשמיים: שנאמר 'וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים, וטהרתם . . .' (יחזקאל לו,כה), ואומר 'מקוה ישראל ה'' (ירמיהו יז,יג)--מה המקוה מטהר את הטמאים, אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מטהר את ישראל"

Rabbi Akiva said: "Israel you are fortunate! For before whom are you made holy, and who makes you holy? Your father in heaven; as it is written. And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be holy. And it also says, The Lord is the hope (mikva) of Israel; - as the mikva make holy the impure, the Holy one blessed be he, makes Israel holy.

What an odd teaching and one about which so many questions might be asked. Why does Rabbi Akiva resort to a pun? What compelled him to deliver this particular teaching? What, at bottom is his lesson?

The answer, I think, like so many things, has to do with the Christians. One of the central teachings of the early Jesus movement was that Jesus had replaced the Temple. "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up," he said, according to the Gospel of John. "... but he spoke of the Temple of his own body."

John is the last Gospel, written (most hold) after the destruction. Like all the Gospels, John is a polemic that reflects the thinking and teachings of its own time and place. John isn't trying to tell us what happened. It is trying to make an argument, to persuade Jews to join the Jesus movement. If John says that Jesus claimed to replace the Temple, it follows that the idea the the Temple had been replaced had currency at the moment, and we can speculate that it was an appealing message.

Without the Temple, Jews were religiously handicapped. Though the Temple was gone, the Jewish desire to bring sacrifices, to watch the Kohen Godol preform the avodah, and to participate in the other Temple rituals hadn't vanished with it. Some Jews likely worried that with no Temple, they could no longer properly serve God, no longer achieve ritual purity, and no longer receive atonement. R. Yochana b. Zackai, famously, provided a response which some Jews accepted. But we see from the Gospel of John that another answer was circulating: Whatever you once did via the Temple, you can now do via Jesus.

Rabbi Akiva was living when John was published, and I propose that this homily was his response to the argument that Jesus was the new Temple. Rabbi Akiva is saying, "We may have lost the Temple, but we have not lost God and it wasn't a building that made you holy. You are fortunate because your holiness is a function of the fact that you are his people, and he is your father. Nothing else is needed." The use of the pun not only drives home the main idea, but reinforces a secondary assurance: We may have lost the Temple, and been exiled. We may have lost the ability to perform our rituals. But we are not without hope."

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