Tag Archives: Feminism

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Akiva

The Greatest Rabbi of All Time?

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva in the 16th century Mantua Haggadah

Akiva ben Yosef (d. 135 CE) was born in Israel to a poor family in the last years of the Second Temple, possibly the grandson of converts to Judaism. Despite being unlearned and impoverished, he fell in love with Rachel, the daughter of one of Jerusalem’s wealthiest men (and his employer). Rachel agreed to marry Akiva on the condition that he would eventually go to study. Her father rejected her choice, and the couple lived in extreme poverty. Finally, aged 40, Akiva enrolled at the yeshiva of Lod, without even knowing the Hebrew alphabet. He returned home only twelve years later, but upon nearing the door of his home, overheard his wife say to a neighbour that if it were up to her, her husband would study for another twelve years. Akiva thus went back to Lod for another dozen years, by the end of which he had become a renowned rabbi with some 24,000 students. This time, he returned home to a huge procession and an adoring crowd. His wife tried to get through and was blocked by his students. Rabbi Akiva famously told them: “Leave her alone, for what is mine and yours, is hers.” His father-in-law recognized the huge mistake he had made, and ended up leaving his fortune to the sage. Rabbi Akiva is credited with setting the foundations of Judaism as we know it. He completed the codification of the Tanakh, and commissioned Aquila of Sinope to produce a new accurate translation of the Torah into Greek – an indispensable tool for the Jewish majority at the time. He helped to quell a number of heretical movements, and ensured the survival of traditional Judaism in the face of the new Christian sect. Some even see him as one of the earliest feminists: it was Rabbi Akiva that banned the practice of separating women from society during their days of menstruation. He also spearheaded the abolition of both slavery and capital punishment in Israel. Rabbi Akiva taught that the most important Torah principle was loving your fellow, and unraveled new techniques in Torah interpretation. (One legend has it that God showed Moses a vision of Rabbi Akiva’s future classroom, and it was so deep that Moses did not understand any of it and began to cry!) Rabbi Akiva also participated in the Bar Kochva Revolt in an attempt to re-establish an independent Jewish kingdom and rebuild the Holy Temple. Unfortunately, the revolt failed with catastrophic results. All of Rabbi Akiva’s students perished. The rabbi was able to find five new students and transmit the Torah to them before his own cruel death at the hands of the Romans. This act is sometimes credited with saving Judaism from extinction. One of those five students was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the traditional author of the Zohar, and the first to publicly reveal the vast mystical dimensions of Judaism. (These teachings he learned from Rabbi Akiva, who was such a great mystic himself that the Talmud states he was the only sage to ascend to the Heavens and return to Earth unscathed.) Rabbi Akiva set the stage for the compilation of the Mishnah, and its eventual evolution into the Talmud. His kindness was legendary, as was his love for Israel – both the nation and the land. He died defending both, being flayed with iron combs by the Romans. He prayed until his last breath, which stunned both his executioner and his students, who asked how he was able to praise God at such a moment. His reply: “All my life I was worried about the verse, ‘[to love Him] with all your soul’ …And I said to myself, when will I ever be able to fulfill this command? And now that I am finally able to fulfill it, I should not?” He then recited the Shema, and just as the last word “echad” left his lips, his soul departed his body. Some scholars title him “the father of Rabbinic Judaism”.

Secrets of the Pesach Seder

Words of the Week

One of the gifts of Jewish culture to Christianity is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews… Any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all.
– Lord William Rees-Mogg

Rabbi Akiva’s Tomb in Tiberias, Israel

Jew of the Week: Lina Morgenstern

The Woman Who Transformed Germany – and the World

Lina Bauer (1830-1909) was born to a wealthy, religious German-Jewish family in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). Her parents were noted social justice activists and philanthropists. Among other things, her father built an apartment building to provide housing for destitute workers, while her mother and aunts sought to save women from brothels and give them a proper education. Lina was raised with these important values. At just 18 years of age, amidst the wars of 1848, she established the Penny Society for Poor Pupils to raise money for shoes, clothes, and books for needy children. The organization would continue to operate for the next eighty years, providing countless children with basic necessities. Lina received an extensive education in music, literature, history, and science, and was so passionate about her studies that her mother wanted to take her out of school. Undeterred, Lina continued to study in secret at night. Meanwhile, she fell in love with a poor Polish Jew and married him in 1854 despite her parents’ wishes. The couple moved to Berlin and Lina (now Morgenstern) started to write to help pay the bills. Morgenstern was heavily influenced by the German thinker Friedrich Fröbel, famous for his concept of a “kindergarten” where small children can learn, play, and grow healthy and happy. Fröbel’s preschools did not go very far, and were even suppressed by the Prussian authorities. It wasn’t until Morgenstern co-founded the Berlin Women’s Association for the Advancement of Fröbelian Kindergartens that the idea took off. She chaired the organization for five years, during which time she established eight kindergartens, and a training academy for kindergarten educators. Fröbel’s other students established the first kindergartens in America, and the institution was soon adopted around the world. Morgenstern ultimately left her post to start a new charity: the Volksküche, or “people’s kitchen”. This organization distributed healthy meals to the poor, inspiring the thousands of soup kitchens that operate around the world today. Morgenstern herself opened up ten such kitchens, each serving as many as 2500 people per day! Morgenstern also published a number of important works on feminism, education, health, and child care. Her Das Paradies der Kindheit (“The Paradise of Childhood”) was the kindergarten textbook used globally for decades, and went through seven editions in her lifetime alone. Meanwhile, her Illustrated Universal Cooking Book – a result of all those years working in soup kitchens – was so popular that the Nazis did not include it in their Jewish book-burning list. Among the other organizations that Morgenstern founded are the School for Further Education of Young Ladies, the Berlin Housewives’ Association, the International Congress of Women, and the Berlin Society for Child Protection. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, she started a group for the care of soldiers, assisting some 60,000 troops. Morgenstern had become so popular and beloved that the German emperor and empress, Wilhelm and Augusta, visited her and became her patrons. Morgenstern was awarded the Victoria Medal, the Service Cross, and the War Medal. Despite all this, she was a central target for anti-Semites, and their attacks ultimately forced her into bankruptcy and illness. The Empress sent her to San Remo to recover, but it was not enough. Morgenstern left the public sphere and spent her last years writing. Among her final works is a collection of 250 biographies of inspiring women. In those last years she also directed the German Peace Society, advocating for pacifism, arms reduction, and peaceful coexistence. Disbanded by the Nazis, the organization was reformed in 1945, and continues to operate to this day. Morgenstern quietly passed away in 1909, and is buried in Berlin’s Jewish cemetery.

The Secret History of the Star of David

Words of the Week

I only have one real man in my cabinet.
– David Ben-Gurion on Golda Meir