The Orchard

Yochi Bran­des; Daniel Liben­son, trans.
  • Review
By – February 14, 2018

The Orchard by Yochi Bran­des; Daniel Liben­son, trans. | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Hebrew as Hapardes shel Aki­va in 2011, this unusu­al his­tor­i­cal nov­el fur­thers bib­li­cal schol­ar Yochi Brandes’s refash­ion­ing of our under­stand­ing of Judaism’s roots, recent­ly ampli­fied in her nov­el The Secret Book of Kings.

Can you imag­ine sit­ting down with Rab­bi Elisha, Rab­bi Eliez­er, Rab­bi Joshua, Rab­bi Tar­fon, Rab­ban Gamaliel, and oth­er sages of the first cen­turies of the com­mon era? Can you imag­ine eaves­drop­ping on their debates, their moments of uncer­tain­ty, their jeal­ousies, their alliances and misalliances?

Can you imag­ine an era dur­ing which those spir­i­tu­al lead­ers inter­act­ed not only with the rul­ing Roman pow­er but with the dawn­ing Chris­t­ian cul­ture and its challenges?

Can you imag­ine their bewil­der­ment — a mix­ture of awe and sus­pi­cion — when the illit­er­ate shep­herd who mar­ried far above his sta­tion bloomed in exile from his wife, Rachel, until he took his place among them and then became their master?

Yochi Bran­des imag­ines these scenes and many more in this aston­ish­ing nov­el that expands our under­stand­ing of how ear­ly mod­ern Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty began. The book is cen­tered on the pow­er­ful fable con­cern­ing Rab­bi Akiva’s ascen­dan­cy and is dressed in all of the sur­round­ing, atten­dant his­to­ry — in par­tic­u­lar the Bar Kokh­ba revolt against the Romans.

Vis­it the clas­si­cal study hous­es, Yavneh in par­tic­u­lar, where debates roiled and pas­sion­ate learn­ing refined the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a Judaism with­out a tem­ple. Engage, with the author’s imag­i­na­tion, as law is test­ed, affirmed, or new­ly under­stood. As learned men of God hon­or and betray one another.

Con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a strong Jew­ish woman’s iden­ti­ty eons before the suc­ces­sive stages of gen­der eman­ci­pa­tion unfolded.

Sharp­en your under­stand­ing of Torah and Tal­mud by wrestling, as the sages did, with Rab­bi Akiva’s rad­i­cal method of scrip­ture interpretation.

Read­ers of this lib­er­at­ing and chal­leng­ing book may want to delve into anoth­er astound­ing exam­i­na­tion of Rab­bi Aki­va and his time: Bar­ry W. Holtz’s Rab­bi Aki­va: Sage of the Tal­mud. Dif­fer­ent as they are, these two explo­rations stand like two book­ends embrac­ing both the past and the future.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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