How political should our religious leaders be? Should they be out knocking on doors sporting colourful rosettes, or distancing themselves from political debate, lest any of their congregants disagree or take offence? Rabbi Akiva is my hero, because I think he represents a bold and daring answer to that question.
Born to humble origins as a shepherd, Akiva married the daughter of a wealthy man, and went off to study. When he returned, he came with a staggering 24,000 disciples.
Akiva was a great scholar, and was one of the first to start compiling the Mishnah. But he used his scholarship to change society. For example, after the Second Temple had been destroyed, he ensured that the Levites did not continue to depend upon tithes and were required to support themselves.
The Talmud tells us that the Roman government banned the teaching of the Torah in public, and yet Akiva was found by Pappus ben Judah teaching in the street.
When Pappus warned him about the ban, Akiva was resolute: if we are not safe in our Torah, he argued, then we will not be safe without it either.
I interpret this as saying that to separate our religious identity from our politics is foolish – if we can’t make a difference speaking from where we feel most at home, we can’t make a difference at all.
Rabbi Akiva was arrested and cruelly executed by the Roman authorities. His life may have ended in tragic and horrific suffering, but that should not dissuade modern Jews from endeavouring to make the world a better place.
Although parts of it are doubtless problematic, our Torah contains teachings of compassion and good policy, which should guide us when engaging with politics outside of the walls of our synagogues – and that is not only true of rabbis.