Monday, January 06, 2020

  • Monday, January 06, 2020
  • Elder of Ziyon
The Orchard is a novel that ties together literally scores, probably hundreds, of Talmudic stories and expressions into a compelling narrative of Rabbi Akiva, the pre-eminent Torah sage of the generation after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The author, Yochi Brandes, who wrote it in Hebrew, masterfully weaves the legends along with the halachic discussions to create a thoroughly modern book that is feminist and even Zionist. Most of the major figures of Rabbinic Judaism of the first and second centuries CE are intertwined in the story.

The book's voice is Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva, the strong willed daughter of the rich Kalba Savua who rejects her betrothal to the brilliant Rabbi Ishmael and instead chooses to marry 40-year old Akiva, an illiterate shepherd in Kalba Savua's employ. Rachel convinces Akiva to go to a yeshiva and become a Torah scholar, leaving her alone and struggling for many years with her two children.

Akiva goes to study but remains silent during discussions until his brilliance is recognized and revealed. Akiva himself is stunned that his loving wife sent him away and assumes, in his modesty, that she no longer wants him. In fact she realizes that he cannot achieve his potential while he relies on her own wisdom and advice. But she is still bitter that he never returns until circumstances force him to.

In the book, Rachel has uncanny intuition and is the unseen protagonist in many Talmudic stories, as are the other strong women in the book: Imma Shalom, the wife of Rabbi  Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and sister of Rabban Gamaliel, and Beruriah, who in this story is Rachel's daughter's best friend.

Brandes describes the political divisions between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel, and in the book Akiva is used as a pawn by leaders of each camp who assume he would be on their side. The politics between Jews and Sadducees, as well as Romans and between different schools of thought for how Torah should be interpreted, are all part of the story where Akiva is given prominence.

The book even has a small subplot about the birth of modern Christianity, where Saul/Paul - in this story, Rabbi Eliezer's maternal uncle - says that Jesus is the actual messiah, but only for non-Jews. He wants to set up a religion where Jews are revered as the Chosen People as a way to counter the existing antisemitism from the pagan world. His sister Judith, another woman who sees things clearly, strongly objects and predicts that Christians will become the Jews' biggest persecutors.

Even the famous Passover seder of the five rabbis in Bnei Brak makes a pivotal appearance in this book.

The Orchard itself is the famous story of how  Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha and Rabbi Akiva used esoteric methods to visit the heavenly abode. Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma (who in this story is betrothed to Akiva's daughter) goes mad, Elisha becomes a heretic and Akiva emerges unscathed. The actual vision is revealed in the novel as an ingenious explanation of their reactions.

We all know that Rabbi Akiva's end is not pleasant and it is elaborated upon as a result of his support of Bar Kochba rather than his teaching Torah, as most traditions state.

For people who actually learn the Talmud, it is necessary to recognize that this is wholly fictional, and many Talmudic stories are twisted to fit the narrative. It is easy to be upset at seeing how the stories we know are changed, and indeed there is a danger of not knowing where the truth ends and fiction begins. Brandes does a brilliant job in taking many disparate stories and even halachic rulings and making them into a consistent story. The book will likely irritate the more didactic. For those who can look past that, it is a remarkable achievement that describes the mindset of the leading Jews in that crucial point in history and how their decisions allowed Judaism to survive in the critical years after all seemed lost.




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