Rabbi Akiva's Optimism

By Meir Soloveichik

The legendary sage had more going for him than wisdom.

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f all the rabbinic sages of antiquity, perhaps none was more influential or famous than Rabbi Akiva. Among his contemporaries, R. Akiva was revered not only for his knowledge of Jewish law, but also for his creative and influential exposition of the Bible. In one of the most surprising of talmudic tales, Moses himself is awed by R. Akiva’s exegetical ability:
R. Judah said the name of Rav: When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One engaged in affixing coronets to the letters. Said Moses, “Lord of the Universe, who stays thy hand?” He answered, “There will arise a man, many generations from now, Akiva ben Joseph by name, who will extract from every tittle heaps and heaps of laws.” Said Moses, “Lord of the Universe, permit me to see him.” He replied, “Turn around.” Moses went and sat down behind eight rows [of R. Akiva’s students] and listened to the discourses on the law. Unable to follow their arguments, he was ill at ease; but when, coming to a certain subject, the students said to the master, “How do you know this?” And the latter replied, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai.” He regained his composure. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One and said, “Lord of the Universe, you have such a man, and yet you give the Tora through me?” He replied, “Be silent, for that is what occurred to me.”1
Yet while R. Akiva’s legal statements are numerous, his autobiographical reflections are few. Other than the barest of details, we lack any thorough account of his life. What we have, rather, are snapshots, stories about R. Akiva that appear here and there in the rabbinic literature. Pieced together like parts of a puzzle, they allow us a glimpse of his unusual personality, most notably a singular character trait: His extraordinary optimism. It was this optimism, in fact, that enabled him not only to overcome severe challenges in his own life, but also, and more importantly, to enable the Jewish people to endure the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile at the hands of the Romans:
R. Gamliel, R. Elazar ben Azarya, R. Joshua, and R. Akiva… were walking towards Jerusalem. When they reached Mount Scopus [from which it is possible to see the Temple Mount], they tore their clothing. When they arrived at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox running out of the area where the Holy of Holies had been. They began to cry, while R. Akiva laughed. They said to him, “Why are you laughing?”…. He replied, “Isaiah the Prophet said, ‘I will bring two reliable witnesses regarding my people, Uriah the Priest and Zecharia ben Yeverchyahu.’”(Isaiah 8:2)… the verse in Isaiah makes Zecharia’s prophecy dependent on Uriah’s. In Uriah’s case, it is written, “Therefore, because of you, Zion will be plowed under like a field.” (Michah 3:12) In the case of Zecharia, we find, “Yet again, elderly men and elderly women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem…. Now that I have seen Uriah’s prophecy fulfilled in full detail, I know that Zecharia’s prophecy will also be fulfilled.” Hearing that, R. Akiva’s colleagues said to him, “Akiva, you have comforted us. Akiva, you have comforted us.”2
The idea that optimism is important, even powerful, is hardly new to us. Indeed, fields such as psychology, sports, and even medicine have long touted the potential of positive thinking to help man triumph over the greatest of odds. Yet only recently has optimism itself become the focus of serious research, with studies across America dedicated to the exploration of the “optimistic” personality. What, these studies seek to determine, are the advantages and disadvantages of optimism? And what determines whether a person adopts an optimistic approach to the world or a pessimistic one?
Martin Seligman, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of a school known as “positive psychology,” has devoted much of his career to the study of optimism. Since Freud, Seligman argues, psychotherapy has focused on the negative aspects of the human psyche. Though mental illness is undoubtedly an important subject of research, a one-sided focus on the flaws in the human mind, what Seligman terms “negative psychology,” can have terrible consequences—contributing, in the words of psychologist Paul Vitz, “to the widespread victim mentality characteristic of today’s American society.” For many psychologists, Vitz writes, “we are all victims of past traumas, abuse, and neglect caused by other people.” And if we are all victims, then “we are not responsible for our bad actions, since they are caused by what others have done to us.” As such, the discipline of psychology “has changed the way most of us think about ourselves,” and not in a good way.3
Seligman, too, first built a name for himself by focusing on the negative. His earlier experiments were dedicated to what he termed “learned helplessness,” a study of how certain psyches seemed more predisposed to give up than others. Eventually, however, he came to believe that, as Vitz put it, “what is needed to balance our understanding of the person is a recognition of positive human characteristics that can both heal many of our pathologies and help to prevent psychological problems in one’s future life.”4 The result was positive psychology, a field that “emphasizes traits that promote happiness and well-being, as well as character strengths such as optimism, kindness, resilience, persistence, and gratitude.”5
Seligman’s first book on the subject was entitled Learned Optimism (1990), in which he delineated the distinct traits that embody the optimistic personality. In approaching the talmudic stories about R. Akiva, the Talmud’s consummate optimist, we may find Seligman’s book a valuable tool in understanding the emphasis the sages placed on describing this unique trait of his. More importantly, it may help us comprehend how the Jewish people as a whole managed to persevere—and even flourish—throughout the arduous centuries of exile....

Meir Soloveichick is a Contributing Editor of Azure. He is Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilat Jeshurun in Manhattan, and is currently working on his doctorate at Princeton University. His last contribution to Azure was "Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of Kashrut" (Azure 23, Winter 2006).

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