Rabbi Akiva Never Cooked a Chicken Soup

by Ruby Namdar

It’s Friday afternoon, my favorite time of the week. I stand in the kitchen, carefully straining a golden chicken soup through the sieve into an enameled pot containing finely diced carrots. The oven is hot, the large rice pot on the stove-top is covered with a neatly folded kitchen towel, just like the one on my mother’s. This isn’t the only way I have found myself channeling her lately. In more ways than I’d care to admit, I’ve become a Jewish mother!

Only I am a man, an ambitious writer, filled with passions and neuroses – and with a larger than life deadline looming over my head like mighty eagle. I’ve got a book to write.

No one forced me into this conflict. My deliberate choice of spending Friday afternoons cooking instead of writing, honing that stubborn paragraph into something closer to perfect, is one of any choices that reflect not just my Jewish priorities but my personal and intellectual ones as well. I have naturally, almost effortlessly, replaced the romantic tormented artist model that informed the choices and lifestyle of my youth with a fully immersive family man model. He’s a much more hands father than the one I’ve seen growing up.

What seemed natural a generation and a half ago – a clear gender division in which the father figure faces outwards while the mother’s gaze is pointed inwards – is no longer. I never entertained the thought of leading a pristine life of contemplation while my wife slaves away at home. (Neither did she, for that matter.) I delved happily, excitedly, into the messy bliss of domestic and family life.

But that, of course, does not mean that this choice is without conflict. Even now, as the chicken soup simmers in the pot, my mind is still split, trying to bridge the dissonance between these two modes of existence. It is not only the sum of minutes, hours and days spent away from one’s desk, lost in the pursuit of family happiness. It isn’t only the loss of freedom to come and go as I please, work all night, sleep all day, allowing the whims of creativity to govern my life instead of my daughters’ school schedule. It is the very thing that causes one to seek domestic bliss – the burden of solitude – that I occasionally mourn.

“The fruit of solitude is originality,” says one of my favorite authors, Thomas Mann in his immortal Death in Venice. “The observations and encounters of a devotee of solitude […] are at once less distinct and more penetrating than those of the sociable man; his thoughts are weightier, stranger, and never without a tinge of sadness.”

This intensity, with its eternal tinge of tragedy, is hardly ever reached when one allows their relationships with their loved ones to become so significant. I’ve allowed my wife and daughters into my inner sanctum; I will never be free to succumb to the dark allure of what Mann beautifully refers to as: “the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden.” I am, it seems, trapped on the sunny side of the street, in the beautifully lit part of existence.

This brings to mind one of the Talmud’s most beautiful, but also darkest, stories of devotion: The well-known story of Rabbi Akiva and his loving wife who sent him away to study Torah while keeping the home front safe. (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Ketuboth Folios 62-63). This story, often told as a wonderful romantic love story with a nice moral take-away is hardly so simple.

An employer’s daughter falls for her father’s ignorant yet noble shepherd and marries him in secret. There’s a condition: the shepherd is to go away and study Torah in the academy. This is a typical male intellectual fantasy: Akiva gets to enjoy the emotional and social stability that comes with marriage and family while at the same time being allowed to separate himself from the hassles and distractions of domesticity and become “a great man”. His return home, twelve years later, is very telling:

When he returned home he brought with him twelve thousand disciples. [While in his home town] he heard an old man saying to her, ‘How long will you lead the life of a living widowhood?’ ‘If he would listen to me,’ she replied. ‘he would spend [in study] another twelve years’. Said [Rabbi Akiva]: ‘It is then with her consent that I am acting’, and he departed again and spent another twelve years at the academy.

The story is, on its face, as a great anthem of the couple’s devotion to the life of holiness and study. How willingly they both sacrifice their domestic bliss for the higher cause of Torah study! But in fact there is a strong ironic, and indeed critical, undercurrent to this story.

Was it really impossible for him to come home once in a while during these twelve years? Why did he need to schlep his twelve thousand disciples along with him? Was it separation anxiety, or perhaps the fear of intimacy? Why did he so readily run back to the safety of the academy without even taking a meal with this woman who enabled him to become a “great man”? Was it really his devotion to Torah? Or a refusal to be sucked into the black-hole of emotional commitment?

This dilemma will never be resolved. Still, there’s this. Last week my daughter walked into the apartment on Friday afternoon and exclaimed: “It smells like heaven mixed with light in here!” What greater reward, in this world or the world to come, can I hope for? The soup is ready. Shabbat Shalom.

Ruby Namdar is the author of the Sapir-prize winning Hebrew novel “The Ruined House” and is chief faculty at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture.

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