Modeling Respect on Lag B’Omer

According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?

Creative Commons/Goxxy
Creative Commons/Goxxy

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara (Oral Law) in Yevamot. There we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.” (Yevamot 62b)

It seems strange that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did “not treat each other with respect.” Rabbi Akiva taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great underlying principle in the entire Torah. (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4) It would be surprising that even just one student of this great tanna of the middle of the 2nd century did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of the quantity of students who died?

It might be helpful to learn some more about who Rabbi Akiva was as a teacher. Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd, Rabbi Akiva became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). There is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva loved his wife Rachel dearly. He gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned during his time away from her. And here is the issue. When his students first met his wife, he told them explicitly that they were all indebted to her. While living apart from his wife for all of those years, Rabbi Akiva did not show his students the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiva did not model this for them? This is reminiscent of the adage, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” On Lag B’Omer we should take a moment and try to learn the lesson that evaded Rabbi Akiva’s students. How should treat each other with respect? It is clearly not enough to just talk about it. If we want to teach respect we need to model it.

Lately there has been a lot of conversation as to what is a legal marriage. Many hide their homophobia and bigotry behind traditional heteronormative assumptions of marriage of their own religious establishment. While it does not seem too respectful, in principle everyone has the right to marginalize someone who does not live by their religious standards. But in a country that claims a division between church and state this religious perspective must be limited to those who chose to live within that particular context and should have no bearings on U.S. law. It is for the very reason that marriage is a sacrament that the state should not get involved in limiting these rights to heterosexual couples. It is not despite the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi, but because of this fact that I think the government should allow same-sex marriage.

How are we any different from the students of Rabbi Akiva? How can we in the religious establishment hope to teach people about respect when we do not model it ourselves? Looking no further than the staggering rate of divorce in this country it is clear that traditional heteronormative marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be. And we the bearers of the religious establishment do not embody divine traits in working to bar two consensual adults who love each other from enjoying the civil rights of a heterosexual couple. Not modeling basic human respect seems to be a true abomination.

As religious people, we should welcome this “challenge” of same-sex marriage as an opportunity to define marital commitment in the 21st century. It seems that we are getting lost in the form of a wedding and completely missing the conversation on the content of a marriage. Who will guide the conversation about commitment? It is laughable to outsource the definition of a marriage to the state. Are we going to leave the conversation of commitment in the hands of politicians? We, the leadership of the religious establishment, want to be the ones crafting the conversation on what makes a life-long commitment work. And in the end we have to realize that we cannot just preach respect from our pulpits. It is not enough just to talk about, or even just to show respect; we need to find new ways to involve each other in building respectful communities. So soon, with Lag B’Omer behind us, we can all get married.

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