Have you ever heard of Rabbi Akiva? He is considered a giant in rabbinic literature, and in many ways the founder of the Judaism as we know it today. He heroically defied the Romans and eventually died a gruesome martyr’s death in 135 AD while praying Shma Israel. He was an amazing scholar, he loved God and the Torah, and it is very probable that his teachings saved the Jewish people from extinction.
He also hated the early Christians, he believed in a false Messiah, he had multiple wives, and he didn’t have a drop of actual Jewish blood in his veins.
In many ways, Rabbi Akiva encompasses both the brilliance and the darkness of rabbinic Judaism. It is very easy to emphasize the positive and make him a hero. It is also easy to emphasize the things he did wrong and make him a villain.
It is the same way with Jewish tradition and rabbinic literature. It is very easy to fall into the ditch of elevating it and making it an idol. It is also easy to fall into the opposite ditch and see all Jewish traditions as heresy.
When Rabbi Akiva arrived on the scene, the Christians were already branded as Jewish heretics. But he did two additional things that pushed the Christians even further away, and some would say that these were the final blows that made them a separate religion. Was that his main goal, or was it just a welcome side effect? We can’t really know. But what he did was this:
1. He systematized the oral law. The oral law had been given from father to son for a number of generations. By this point the rabbis believed that it came all the way from Moses (they still believe so). We can guess that it’s probably the same oral law that the Pharisees asked Jesus about when they said “Why are your disciples breaking the tradition of the elders?” (Matt 15:2)
Akiva never wrote it down, but he systematized the oral laws in a way that made the memorization easier, and he set it according to his theology (which we will get back to later). These are rules that Jesus spoke against. He said that they are adding unnecessary burdens on people. Akiva not only legitimized these laws, but perpetuated them, ensuring their survival and their eventual incorporation into the Talmud. They were eventually written down a couple of generations later, under Yehuda haNasi in the 3rd century. This became the Mishna, which is considered the oldest part of the Talmud.
2. He declared Bar Kochba to be the Messiah. The Bar-Kochba revolt erupted in 132 AD. When Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba, the leader of the rebellion, to be the Messiah, the Christians could not participate. Did he do that on purpose to throw an extra wedge in between and keep the Christians out? Maybe. In any case, the Christian Nazarene Jews did not take part, and as a result were further ostracized from their Jewish brethren. It is possible that many Christians were executed during the brief Jewish independence at the time of the revolt.
The Romans eventually crushed the rebellion with zero mercy. Akiva was executed under torture. Jerusalem was demolished and a new pagan city named Aelia Capitolina was built on its ruins. Judea was renamed Palestine.
But the teachings of Rabbi Akiva lived on. The Jewish center of learning moved to Tiberias and Babylon. The theology he advanced – to see the Torah as a divine text where each symbol and each little dot could have a deep and spiritual meaning – was generally adopted and led to further discussions recorded in the Talmud and Jewish mysticism in Kabbalah. If it wasn’t for Rabbi Akiva Judaism might not exist today, or at least it would look very different.
At the same time, the gentile Christians developed an antisemitic and unbiblical replacement theology, teaching that the Jews were no longer God’s chosen people. The failed rebellion led by a false Messiah proved to them that the Jews had fallen out of favor with God. Once Christianity became the new state religion of Rome, persecutions of Jews started to gain momentum.
In addition, the Christians dismissed almost all of the biblical Jewish traditions, as Christians were “no longer under the law.” But then they made up new traditions and laws instead, largely based on existing pagan practices, and forced these pagan customs upon converted Jews. Absurdly enough, Jews who wanted to believe in the Messiah of Israel were forced to give up their Jewish identity.
Today many Christians, especially evangelicals, reject replacement theology and feel deep remorse for the antisemitism that the church has been guilty of (and if they don’t, they probably should). This remorse, plus the protestant lack of ancient rituals and traditions, has caused many evangelicals to rediscover the vast richness of Judaism. This is understandable and even desirable. If you are searching for deep and ancient roots – you will only find them within Judaism (some are fooled to search for them in Catholicism, but that is a different discussion).
The mistake that many do is that they think that the Judaism of today is equal or similar to the Judaism that was around during Jesus’ time, and they end up learning unbiblical or even anti-biblical things that are really relying on the theology of Rabbi Akiva or those who came after him. In fact, a lot of the rabbinic literature probably started as opposed to Jesus’ teachings, or as a response to Christian teachings.
Rather than trying to study rabbinic literature, I would encourage people that are interested in Jewish traditions to instead look for ways to start keeping original biblical traditions such as shabbat and Jewish holidays. This is a great and biblical starting point, even if you do incorporate traditional rabbinical additions. All biblical holidays really do point to the Messiah, and I will expand on this in later blog posts.
What did Jesus do with extra-biblical rabbinical teachings? Yes, he spoke against some of them. Other traditions he kept. Not only that, he took the rabbinic tradition of unleavened bread and wine on Passover and showed how it really points to him. This is what we Messianic Jews in Israel do when we celebrate the biblical holidays. We emphasize how it all points to Jesus.
Traditions and rituals don’t save us. A friend of mine once said that traditions are like spice for the human experience. Some don’t want any, some want a lot. I can add that some want Jewish spice and some want Christian spice. We shouldn’t judge one another based on our spice consumption. But we should make sure that whatever we do, it will draw us closer to Jesus.
Why do I advise against studying rabbinic literature? After all, there are many benefits to deeper knowledge of Jewish philosophy and theology. The rabbis have studied the Old Testament for many centuries in the original language in ways most Christians can’t even imagine. But since they often follow Akiva’s principle, a lot of the teaching is focused on the sounds of the Hebrew words, the shapes of the letters, the numerology of the words used, etc. True, sometimes this can indeed lead to amazing and deeper knowledge. But most of the time it is just a way for the rabbis to bend the scripture to their own will.
If you do decide to deepen your knowledge about Torah and Judaism, be discerning. Make sure to keep your mind focused on the Messiah. His redemptive work on the cross is what saves us. Not prayers and righteousness, not even the Torah itself. If you want to enrich your learning, go ahead – but proceed with caution. Always think to yourself “Does this point me to – or away from – the Messiah of Israel?”
Don’t dismiss the rabbinic traditions, but neither elevate it to something that it isn’t. There is a ditch on both sides.