Thursday, May 11, 2023

Fortunate and Hopeful: Rabbi Akiva's Response to the Loss of the Temple

Rabbi Akiva said, "Israel, how fortunate you are! Whose presence sanctifies you? It is your Heavenly Father, as it is written, 'I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be holy.' And further, 'The Lord is the hope (mikva) of Israel.' Just as the mikva purifies the impure, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, sanctify Israel."
This teaching by Rabbi Akiva evokes curiosity and invites numerous questions. Why did Rabbi Akiva choose to convey his message through a pun? What inspired him to impart this particular wisdom? And ultimately, what is the fundamental lesson he wished to impart?
The answer, I think, like so many things, has to do with the Christians. During that time, one of the central teachings among early Jesus followers 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."
The Gospel of John, considered the last Gospel written, is a polemic text reflecting the thoughts and teachings of its era. 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. Although the physical Temple was no more, the longing among Jews to offer sacrifices, witness the High Priest's avodah, and partake in other Temple rituals remained. Some Jews likely worried that without the Temple, they could no longer worship God properly, achieve ritual purity, or obtain atonement. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai famously provided a response that resonated with some Jews. However, the Gospel of John reveals an alternative view was circulating: whatever was once accomplished through the Temple could now be accomplished through Jesus.
Rabbi Akiva lived during the time when the Gospel of John was circulating, and I propose that his homily is his response to the notion of Jesus as the new Temple. Rabbi Akiva is saying, "While we may have lost the physical Temple, we have not lost our connection with God. It was never the building that sanctified you. Your fortune lies in the fact that you are His chosen people, and He is your loving Father. Nothing more is required for your holiness." The use of pun not only reinforces the central idea but also provides an additional assurance: despite losing the Temple and enduring exile, we are not without hope.