By Shlomo Riskin
These seven words – “You shall love your friend as yourself” – are designated by the renowned Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva as “the greatest rule of the Torah” (J.T. Nedarim 30b), the bedrock of our entire ethical system.
Fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Akiva was considered one of the most illustrious of the rabbinical decisors, who led a major Talmudic academy that could boast a student body of tens of thousands.
Indeed, it became the first yeshivat hesder in history, whose students fought valiantly against the Roman conquerors, hoping to restore the Holy City of Jerusalem, to enthrone their General Bar Kokhba as King Messiah, to rebuild the Holy Temple and to usher in the time of Redemption. Alas, the redemption was not to be; the kingdom of Bar Kokhba lasted only three and a half years; Bar Kokhba himself was killed and the aborted Judean rebellion ended in tragic failure.
The Talmud (B.T. Yevamot 62b) records that 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva lost their lives due to askera, an Aramaic term which Rashi explains as a plague of diphtheria; but Rav Hai Gaon maintains much more logically that they died by the sword (“sicarii” is sword in Greek) in the Bar Kokhba wars, as well as in the Hadrianic persecutions which followed the military defeat.
The initial mourning period observed during these days of the counting of the omer – from the end of Passover until Lag Ba’omer (the 33rd day of the barley offering, when the disciples of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying) – memorializes the death of these valiant young martyrs, so anxious to restore Jewish sovereignty in Judea.
The Talmud, morally interested in discovering an ethical flaw that might justify the failure of this heroic attempt, maintained that it was “because the students of Rabbi Akiva did not honor each other properly, that they were involved in petty jealousies and rivalries causing them to face their Roman foes from a position of disunity and internal strife” (Yevamot, ibid).
How could this be? After all, Rabbi Akiva’s major teaching was that “you shall love your friend as yourself – this is the greatest rule of the Torah.” Did Rabbi Akiva fail to inculcate within his disciples the one teaching that he considered to be quintessential Torah?
Firstly, one can say that it was only after the death of the 24,000, and the understanding that the tragedy occurred because of their “causeless animosity” amongst themselves (sinat hinam), that Rabbi Akiva began to emphasize loving one’s fellow as the greatest rule of the Torah. Secondly, the Talmud (B.T. Gittin 56b) has Rabbi Akiva applying a shockingly disparaging verse to Rav Yohanan ben Zakkai, who close to seven decades earlier had left the besieged Jerusalem at the 11th hour to stand before Vespasian and trade away sovereignty over Jerusalem and hegemony over the Holy Temple, for the city of Yavne and the Sanhedrin of 71 wise elders: “oft-times God moves wise men backwards and turns their wisdom into foolishness” (Isaiah 44:25).
Rabbi Akiva was not attacking ben Zakkai’s ideology but he was rather disparaging his persona, very much ad hominem: “God had moved ben Zakkai backwards and transformed his wisdom into foolishness!” No matter how many times Rabbi Akiva might have emphasized “Love your neighbor as yourself,” this one-time “put-down” of a Torah scholar unfortunately may have caused his disciples to overlook his general teaching and learn from his harsh words. Herein lies a crucial lesson for every educator: our students learn not from what we tell them during our formal lessons but rather from what they see us do and hear us say, especially if we are speaking off the record.
Finally, when Hillel, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, is approached by a would-be convert and challenged to teach him the entire Torah “while he stands on one leg,” Hillel responds by rephrasing Rabbi Akiva’s Golden Rule in more practical terms by teaching you what not to do: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the entire Torah; all the rest is commentary; go out and study it…” (B.T. Shabbat 31a). And similarly, the same sage Hillel teaches, “Do not judge your friend until you actually stand in his place” (Mishna Avot 2:5), which is another way of saying that you must not judge your brother unless you had been faced by the same trial he had to face – and had responded differently.
Perhaps when Rabbi Akiva initially judged Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s “deal” with Vespasian, he (Rabbi Akiva) was not in the midst of a brutal and losing battle against Rome; at that earlier time it was comparatively easy for him to criticize ben Zakkai as having given up too much too soon. However, once he himself became involved in what eventually was the tragic debacle of Bar Kokhba against Rome, he very well might have taken back his critical attribution of Isaiah’s verse to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who was certainly vindicated by subsequent Jewish history.
Yes, we must love our friends as we love ourselves, and one of the ways to fulfill this command is by refraining from judging our “friends” until we actually stand in their place.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.