Religion Magazine

Book Review: the Orchard

By Gldmeier @gldmeier
A Guest Post by Dr Harold Goldmeier
The Life and Times of Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef 50 CE to 135 CE
Yochi Brandes with Translation by Daniel Libenson
Gefen Publishing English-language copyright 2017 ISBN: 978-229-930-7
Judaism has no heroes except God. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are mortals in Jewish tradition renown for accepting and spreading monotheism. They lived according to Torah values in an age dominated by whim and unbridled passions.
BOOK REVIEW: THE ORCHARDNone is more a hero than Moses.  Yet, sins and petulance prevent Moses from entering the Promised Land despite being the only human to see the face of God.  Jewish heroes must demonstrate to the people an unwavering faith in One God and willingness to lead their people and die for them if need be.
Popular Israeli novelist Yochi Brandes tells the life story of Akiva in an intriguing fiction format frequently from the point of view of women in his life The Orchard. Akiva is destined to become one of Judaism’s heroes, but Brandes does not treat Akiva with kid gloves. Brandes portrays Akiva overly devout, and willing to sacrifice his children to a life of abject poverty. His wife must go to the marketplace and sell goods. She is so lonely she laments feeling like an agunah, while Akiva is away for years, living “in the bubble of Torah. Nothing interests him.”
What is a novel without intrigue and Brandes does not disappoint. Akiva is thrust into a tenacious web of power struggles between rabbis, an angry rich father-in-law and the daughter who defies him to marry Akiva, internecine fights dragooning Akiva to choose sides between rabbis who are his mentors, friends, chevrusas and scholars he admires. Prestiege and power are on the line for winning control of houses of learning that set the path for Jewish philosophy, hermeneutics, exegesis and precepts for eternity.
Then there is living under the yoke of Roman occupation, the spreading “message of Jesus to the Romans. Crowds of (Jews) flocked to him. That’s what brought about his end. The mass appeal of the Nazarenes is a threat to the empire, then and now.”
As early as page 19, Brandes lets readers feel the love Akiva has for God in an erogenous exchange with his wife and lover. She visits Akiva in his solitude while living in a cave learning the secrets of Torah and fomenting a love of God. She constantly pushes Akiva to become the giant Torah scholar she knows is his potential: “I move closer and sit down beside him, my legs touching his. He takes my hand and places it in the hollow into which the water is flowing. My fingers are on fire, a shiver runs down my spine…We sit for a few moments without speaking. I lean my head toward him. I watch him, not wanting the silence to end. But he makes that odd statement again: ‘I love God.’ My throat tightens. I never before imagined that a person could be jealous of God. Feel the silence, Rachel.” She is relentless wanting Akiva to learn the Torah, and takes the opportunity to compel in the pursuit. In a climax the turning point in his life, Rachel persuades Akiva, to let Torah “penetrate into your heart. He smiles, and the smile reaches his eyes. I know that I have done it.”
Akiva pays the price for the Jewish rebellion with a chilling description of his torture and death. Despite all odds it is Akiva who lives in history as a Jewish hero, his name revered throughout the ages for he believed “The State of Judea will live in security from the desert in the south to the Lebanon in the north,” with the Roman defeat by Bar Kokhba.  
On a final note, some readers may recall the controversy surrounding a two-volume book, Making of a Godol, published in 2002, and authored by Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky. The book was about the life of his esteemed father. The book was banned in the Orthodox world and pulled. Leading rabbis condemned it being disrespectful to the lives of rabbinic leaders, because it shared tidbits about them reading newspapers, Russian books in his father’s youth, a “sore loser” at chess. The book humanized his father.
I can imagine what these 21st century censors might do if any of them read The Orchard. Brandes might face demonstrators outside her home, or even death threats for her realistic presentation of the life of Rabbi Akiva. These censors still argue today against the vision of Akiva asking, “What led Rabbi Akiva to drag the nation of Israel into a pointless and unwinnable war?”   
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