Originally published in Hebrew as Hapardes shel Akiva in 2011, this unusual historical novel furthers biblical scholar Yochi Brandes’s refashioning of our understanding of Judaism’s roots, recently amplified in her novel The Secret Book of Kings.
Can you imagine sitting down with Rabbi Elisha, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabban Gamaliel, and other sages of the first centuries of the common era? Can you imagine eavesdropping on their debates, their moments of uncertainty, their jealousies, their alliances and misalliances?
Can you imagine an era during which those spiritual leaders interacted not only with the ruling Roman power but with the dawning Christian culture and its challenges?
Can you imagine their bewilderment — a mixture of awe and suspicion — when the illiterate shepherd who married far above his station bloomed in exile from his wife, Rachel, until he took his place among them and then became their master?
Yochi Brandes imagines these scenes and many more in this astonishing novel that expands our understanding of how early modern Judaism and Christianity began. The book is centered on the powerful fable concerning Rabbi Akiva’s ascendancy and is dressed in all of the surrounding, attendant history — in particular the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans.
Visit the classical study houses, Yavneh in particular, where debates roiled and passionate learning refined the possibilities of a Judaism without a temple. Engage, with the author’s imagination, as law is tested, affirmed, or newly understood. As learned men of God honor and betray one another.
Consider the possibilities of a strong Jewish woman’s identity eons before the successive stages of gender emancipation unfolded.
Sharpen your understanding of Torah and Talmud by wrestling, as the sages did, with Rabbi Akiva’s radical method of scripture interpretation.
Readers of this liberating and challenging book may want to delve into another astounding examination of Rabbi Akiva and his time: Barry W. Holtz’s Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud. Different as they are, these two explorations stand like two bookends embracing both the past and the future.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.