Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus ch.8 of Ephraim and Akiva by Alexander Zephyr
Â Â Â Â Â Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (circa 45-117 CE or circa 40-120 CE)Â was a great Tanna of the first and the beginning of the second century, the most prominent disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who realized his learning capacity and enormous memory potential and characterized him as "a cemented cistern that loses not a drop of water" (Pirkei Abot 2:8). He is the sixth most frequently mentioned sage in the Mishnah. His respect and devotion to his teachers are embodied in his famous saying: "I have never taught anything that I had not learned from my masters" (Sukkah 28a). R. Eliezer was a member of the Sanhedrin under the presidency of Gamaliel II. He also established his own academy in Lydda and had many disciples, including R. Akiva. Officially he became known as 'Eliezer ha-Gadol' (the Great) but generally everybody called him just 'Rabbi Eliezer.' Rabbi Yochanan used to say: if all the sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the other scale, he would outweigh them all.Â
His honesty and judicial impartiality was illustrated from theÂ Biblical passage, "That which is altogether just shalt thou follow" (Deuteronomy 16:20), and this was explained as "Seek a reliable court: Go after R. Eliezer to Lydda or after Johanan ben Zakkai to Beror el" (Sanhedrin 32b).
The approach of R. Eliezer to the interpretation ofÂ Scripture was very conservative. He strictly followed established authoritative traditions in religious practice and upheld the teaching of his highly respected Masters. His most renowned student was R. Akiva (Yer. Pes. vi. 33b) who on the contrary viciously opposed the 'old fashioned' method of interpretation ofÂ Scripture. R. Akiva introduced a more creative and dynamic approach, by means of which he was able "to discover things that were even unknown to Moses". This ideological battle between conservatism and modernity reflected the historical situation of the Jewish nation after the destruction of the Second Temple. R. Eliezer and his conservative followers defended the 'original intent' ofÂ the Torah of Moses and taught that in order to preserve the Torah and Oral LawÂ they would have to strictly uphold the teachings and traditions of the previous generations and their Sages. R. Akiva and his close circle of disciples preferred a new interpretive creative approach. They said that times had changed and innovation was necessary for Judaism to survive in a modern historical-religious environment.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â "Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus was known for his humility; he would never say a word of Torah that he had not heard from his teacher, yet he was in constant altercation with his colleagues and stood his ground to the end. The same with Rabbi Akiva, who was so humble he sat in a class of small children at the age of forty, and yet stood in fearless rebellion against the awesome Roman Empire" (R. Tzvi Freman, Chabad).
Here again, as usual, R. Akiva is characterized as a humble, fearless, and heroic personality (which he truly was) for inciting and leading the Bar Kokhba Revolt against "the awesome Roman Empire". But onlya few (like R. Hai Gaon, R. Pinchas Stolper, R. Dovid Rosenfeld, R. Michael Leo Samuel, R Shlomo Riskin and some others) have had the guts to tell what it really means. It has meant a lot for the Jewish People. It meant a merciless massive slaughter of the Jews, loss of the Land of Israel, and two thousand years of Exile with unprecedented suffering and persecution. This great tragedy could have been prevented if R. Akiva and his colleagues had have acted in the manner of responsible peacemakers as taught and demonstrated by the wise men of Israel, R. Hillel, Rabban Gamliel, R.Yochanan ben Zakkai, R. Judah, and R. Joshua. The Messianic Revolt initiated by men, not by God, was destined to failure, as has been proven by history on many occasions.
Sure, R. Akiva was a humble man, but to praise him for fearlessness and heroism in connection with the Jewish Revolt which he organized, ignited and led together with the military leader, Bar Kokhba, the "Messiah", is to ignore the tragic consequences of this Revolt for the Jewish People and the huge responsibility of R. Akiva for it.
R. Eliezer was also known, apart from his humility, as the greatest scholar and religious leader of his time. And when we are speaking of real heroism and courage, let us not forget the story of how he and his well known colleague R. Joshua saved the life of their beloved Master Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai by smuggling him out in a coffin away from the hands of the fanatics and terrorists. The risk to their lifes was real and so was the bravery and determination in their hearts. It is because of these three men that the Academy of Yavneh and even the survival of Judaism were possible. R. Eliezer was not known as a Sage who in the face of the majority would sacrifice his principles and justice: He is the one who fights to the death for those principles, as his Dispute before the Sanhedrin was to reveal. Â