Moses and Akiva (and the US Constitution)

Last week, in a course I am co-teaching on Religious Pluralism and Civic Life, we discussed a fascinating story from The Jerusalem Talmud (completed before 400 CE), with help from my Tufts colleague Yonatan Brafman:

§ Rav Yehuda [Judah bar Ezekiel, 220–299 CE] says that Rav [Abba Arikha 175–247 CE] says: When Moses ascended on High [to Mount Sinai], he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah [kether or decorative tags added to specific Hebrew letters]. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these additions? God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef [50-135 CE] is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot [laws and ordinances]. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah.

Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, show him to me. God said to him: Return behind you. Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient. When Rabbi Akiva arrived at the discussion of one matter, his students said to him: My teacher, from where do you derive this? Rabbi Akiva said to them: It is a halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai. When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive.

Moses returned and came before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and said before Him: Master of the Universe, You have a man as great as this and yet You still choose to give the Torah through me. Why? God said to him: Be silent; this intention arose before Me. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, You have shown me Rabbi Akiva’s Torah, now show me his reward. God said to him: Return to where you were. Moses went back and saw that they were weighing Rabbi Akiva’s flesh in a butcher shop [bemakkulin], as Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans [for teaching the Torah]. Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, this is Torah and this is its reward? God said to him: Be silent; this intention arose before Me.

Menachot 29b, in The William Davidson digital edition of the Koren Noé Talmud, with commentary by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, via

When Moses magically enters Akiva’s classroom (maybe 1500 years in the future), he chooses to sit in the back row, like an apprehensive freshman, and then feels his confidence slip even further when he realizes that he cannot follow the sophisticated conversation. This is a metaphor for intellectual progress and growing expertise.

But then, when Akiva’s authority is challenged, the rabbi credits everything he knows to Moses (or to the commandments that Moses that had received on Sinai), which is a metaphor for original revelation. Akiva is saying that everything was already known at the beginning of the tradition.

At the moment that Moses experiences his vision of Akiva’s classroom, he has not yet received the Torah and does not know its content. He is consoled by the thought that the text that he will receive will “contain” Akiva’s interpretations of it.

The frame text (“Rav Yehuda says that Rav says …”) alerts us to the chain of pronouncements and commentary that is central to Judaism–and to many, if not all, intellectual and spiritual traditions. Ideas come from sources. Interpreters analyze and interpret these ideas, building larger bodies of thought that derive authority from their origins even when they no longer express the founders’ intentions.

One could say the same of US constitutional law. In that tradition, too, it is common to think that the founders would be bewildered by contemporary legal arguments, or that everything we argue today is somehow contained in the founding documents–or both. We might imagine:

The ghost of James Madison went and sat at the back of Larry Tribe’s Harvard con-law lecture class and didn’t understand what anyone was talking about. He ducked low in his seat in case Tribe decided to cold-call him. Madison was relieved when Tribe suddenly mentioned him as the “Father of the Constitution.”

To doubt that there is–or ought to be–any link between the founding and the present is to dispute the value of the whole framework.

At some point, it’s natural to ask why such an edifice exists, as Moses does when he asks about the “reward” of Torah. According to tradition, Akiva was tortured to death for refusing to stop teaching scripture, which dramatizes this question. The answer is: “Be silent; this intention arose before Me.” In other words: “Don’t ask.” Even the divine voice is passive, as if the “intention” arose of its own volition.

At the base of the structure is obligation, not choice–or so this Talmudic story suggests. Is that always the case?

See also: scholasticism in global context; the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; is everyone religious?;  a Hegelian meditation

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.