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Lessons from the Sage of Love

Talmudic chronology introduces us to Rabbi Akiva, one of the leading sages of the Mishnaic period, in a love story. According to the legend, it was Rachel, the wellborn daughter of a wealthy man, who initiated contact with Akiva ben Yosef, a poor, common shepherd who was, according to tradition, a descendant of converts who had “learned nothing” and was completely ignorant. Nevertheless, he attracted her attention. She recognized the potential in his personality, saw that he was “modest and excellent,” and proposed that she become betrothed to him, on condition that he go to the house of study.

Rachel had planned that Akiva would go to the house of study and learn a little, thereby becoming acceptable to her father retroactively; then they could marry. Her father, however, discovered that she had secretly become engaged to this ignoramus, threw her out of his house, and vowed that he would not give her any assistance or property. Left with no choice, Rachel married Akiva, although he had not yet fulfilled his part of the agreement, having not yet gone to the house of study to learn Torah. Without a roof over their heads, the married couple was destined for a life of indigence, but their romance was not dulled by their poverty. In the winter they found shelter in a barn, where Akiva picked bits of straw out of his wife’s hair and whispered in her ear: “Were it in my power, I would give you a ‘Jerusalem of gold’ [diadem].” To that promise she replied: “Go to the house of study.”

Akiva inflicted great distress upon Rachel by not going immediately after their betrothal to study Torah, and instead postponing the fulfilment of the promise he had given by a few years. Only when their son got older, and the time came to bring him to a teacher that he might learn to read and write, did Akiva overcome his embarrassment and begin to study with his son. He continued learning until he had learned the entire Torah. Afterwards, Rachel sent him to the house of study and he went there.

According to the talmudic account, Rachel lived for more than two decades alone and poor, a widow in her husband’s lifetime, but with determination and the knowledge that this was the consequence of her desire that her husband study Torah. Rachel’s love for Rabbi Akiva brought him to love the Torah to which he devoted his life. And not only did he fulfil his love pledge in going to the house of study, he became a great sage and acquired many students. He thus justified her belief that he would live up to the potential she saw in him from the start.

Rachel’s love drew out Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom and moral perfection, making his Torah—and that of his students throughout the generations—hers. The sage of love is a woman’s creation, since it is a woman’s love that begot his wisdom. 

Rabbi Akiva & the Song of Songs

Contrary to the books of the Prophets, which clearly use human love as a metaphor for Divine love and a means of conveying religious and spiritual messages, Song of Songs refers to human love. Rabbi Akiva is credited with having determined the scriptural status of Song of Songs, stating that “For the entire world was never so worthy as on the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, since all of scripture is holy, and the Song of Songs is holy of holies!” (Mishna Yadaym, 3, 5).

It was the time of the Sanhedrin, under the presidency of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. The rabbis were debating whether Song of Songs should be given the status of scripture—and thus debating love itself. Those who argued yes, Rabbi Akiva foremost among them, believed that Song of Songs was scripture, not because of any esoteric significance or inferences hidden within the text, but because love is the most sublime manifestation of the human experience, and that the ideal of human love is the greatest expression of the bond between man and God. The love of the Jewish people for God, or the love of human beings for God, is no different than the love between man and woman. Moreover, the love between human partners is true love, not a parable for something loftier or different, but the real thing. Rabbi Akiva’s insight that love between man and woman is the source of wisdom, his conferring upon it the highest possible level of sanctity—the status of “holy of holies”—and his conviction that it serves as the cornerstone of moral life, are all expressed in his statement: “Had the Torah not been given, the Song of Songs would have been worthy to guide the world” (Agadat Shir Hashirim, p.5). He brought love into the sanctum sanctorum —the holy of holies—and created a hierarchy of holiness, with love between man and woman, as depicted in the Song of Songs, at its highest level. All other levels of holiness flow from this holy of holies, draw upon it, and are defined in relation to it. 

Practice and Theory in the Wisdom of Love

The halakhic rulings of Rabbi Akiva demonstrate how the sage of love did not merely conceive abstract ideas, but applied his principles to daily life through his legal decisions. For example, he overturned an earlier decree prohibiting a woman’s adornment and use of cosmetics while in a state of menstrual impurity. In Rabbi Akiva’s eyes, the value of maintaining harmony within the marriage and sustaining the constant attraction between husband and wife justified the risk that the husband might commit the grave sin of “lying with her that is unclean.”

Rabbi Akiva also established clear halakhic guidelines for marriage and divorce. He was stringent that in matters of love and marriage, ruling that one must not marry without love, not only because of the likelihood that the marriage will fail, but also because it is prohibited to place oneself in circumstances that will lead to hating a fellow human being. In matters of divorce, however, his approach was lenient, ruling that if there is no longer love and harmony between the partners, the marriage no longer serves its purpose and should therefore be dissolved. 

Love Thy Fellow as Thyself

Rabbi Akiva asserted that “love thy fellow as thyself” is the greatest principle in the Torah, and the basis of socialization. He taught that the ability to love another requires that one first love oneself. Love of self, he said, can develop in two possible ways. One can allow the ego to take control of the man—such love tends to burn itself out; or one can love others, exercising responsibility toward them, performing act of kindness for them—and such interpersonal relations eventually develop into love for all human beings created in God’s image. “Love thy fellow” strengthens “thyself,” and love of oneself provides a solid basis, a mainstay, for love of others. 

Ultimate Love

The sage of love gave his final lesson on the philosophy of love at the moment of his execution. His students—who during the years of their studies had learned from him that suffering was beloved, that it had a meaning, affording the righteous an opportunity to atone for some of the sins that they had nevertheless committed in this world—were nonetheless unable to come to terms with his imminent demise. As Rabbi Akiva was being tortured to death by the Romans, his disciples, watching with admiration and deep sorrow, cried out: “Rabbi, even now?!” Now, as you are being executed and are a hairsbreadth from certain death, have you not reached the point of meaninglessness? Do you even now hold fast to your principles? Do you even now accept God’s judgment? And Rabbi Akiva, clearly, precisely, and simply, explained to his students the meaning of his death: Love. Ultimate love! The Torah is the Torah of love. Its commandment is to love God, and rarely does the opportunity arise to observe this commandment completely. “All my days I grieved at the words ‘with all thy soul’” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “And now that the opportunity presents itself, will I not fulfill it?” He saw ultimate meaning in the ultimate moment of life—to love God “with all thy soul”—“even when it is taken from you!”At the very moment his life was taken, as he fulfilled the commandment to accept the yoke of heaven and love God, “he drew out [the word] ‘one’ (ehad) until his soul departed on ‘one.’” With all the strength in his body, with all the force of his spirit, with immeasurable love of God, he devoted his final breath to ‘one.’ “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might”—ultimate love.

He who first appeared on the stage of history in a love story; who rescued the masterpiece Song of Songs—the love poem par excellence—and established its standing in the holy of holies; who developed a philosophical and practical system of marital harmony; who was stringent in love, lenient in divorce, and resolute in giving love the chance to begin anew; who saw love between man and woman as sacred perfection of body, mind, and spirit; who asserted that “love thy fellow as thyself” is the great principle from which all morality derives; who preached love for all who were created in God’s image; who accepted all of the misfortunes that befell him with love; and who, with every fiber of his being, perfectly fulfilled the commandment to love God, loving Him with all his heart, with all his might and with all his soul, even when his life was taken—ultimate love. Such a man, Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, is worthy of the title “sage of love.” 

Rabbi Professor Naftali Rothenberg is town rabbi of Har Adar, Israel and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. This article is adapted from his book The Wisdom of Love: Man, Woman & God in Jewish Canonical Literature (Academic Studies Press, 2009).